Oahu, Hawaii’s third largest island, faces a surprising problem: a shortage of fresh water. After all, hundreds of waterfalls cascade down its volcanic mountains and rivers flow through its misty forests. However, potable water is scarce, the result of hundreds of years of exploitation and mismanagement and toxic seepage. Recently, a fuel leak from a Navy storage facility near Pearl Harbor threatened Oahu’s main source of fresh water. If the fuel contaminates nearby wells, it could put thousands of people at risk of being deprived of a precious daily resource.

The spill at Navy Yard, as dire as it is, is just one of Oahu’s water problems. The island’s geographic history has been dictated by various commercial interests such as the sugar plantation industry, real estate developers, and tourist attractions that diverted and reduced the public water supply for private gain.

[Related: The US is losing some of its biggest freshwater reserves]

Water is so integral to the island, says Shelley Muneoka, a social work specialist and Native Hawaiian board member of KAHEA, a community organization that protects the state’s natural and cultural resources. Life in Water, which roughly translates to “water is life” or “life comes from water.” This belief was enshrined in a 1978 state law known as the public trust doctrine, which states that water cannot be bought or sold as property. As a result, landowners have no rights over the resource.

Taro and cotton farmers used this doctrine to reclaim natural streams to grow their crops. In a recent case, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the state violated this doctrine when it allowed a real estate company to divert millions of gallons of water without an environmental review. “When that water is diverted, it’s not just the death of a patch. It’s the practices around it — the surrounding community that practiced them for generations is also disappearing,” Muneoka said.

But doctrine and other domestic solutions may not be enough to solve the disaster in the Navy. In November 2021, 14,000 gallons of kerosene-based jet fuel spilled into a tunnel at Kapukakī known as Red Hill—just one of the latest fuel leaks at the underground military compound. Many members of public and local groups, including Oahu Water Protectors, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Water Supply Board, criticized the recurring problem as a “humanitarian and environmental disaster.”

Calls to close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility echo a growing rift between Hawaiians and those who exploit their land. Experts and residents say the pollution is yet another example of the generational consequences of colonialism over indigenous lands and rights. Without safe access to drinking water, the Navy endangers the health and livelihoods of islanders.

Aerial view of Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial in the blue-green lagoon on Oahu
Built on Pu’uloa, Pearl Harbor Lagoon is the connecting point for Oahu’s largest freshwater system. Deposit Images

Red Hill’s messy beginnings

Red Hill’s history dates back to 1893, when the American government annexed the islands and invaded and stationed troops in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kyle Kajihiro, a professor of geography and ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a board member of Hawaii Peace and Justice, explains that at the time, the U.S. saw lands like Red Hill as a key hub for future conquests of the Pacific.

For the military, land was nothing more than a tactical support. The fuel facility is located on a mountain range between two valleys on the southern edge of the island. Below that is a basal aquifer—groundwater—that sits atop a saltwater aquifer that supplies water to more than 400,000 residents. As Kānaka Maoli or Native Hawaiians saw it, local water systems and surrounding areas were naturally connected to form a productive ecosystem.

“This was a very important geography for Kanaka Maoli. “It sits in a very unique place between two volcanoes, Wai’anae and Ko’olau, where they meet and then the water bodies flow into that estuary,” Kajihiro says.

Fresh water is drained from these two mountain ranges into the so-called traditional land divisions crazy. These ahupua’a generally flow from the mountain to the sea and include downstream rivers and watersheds before converging on the shores of Pu’uloa, the lagoon now known as Pearl Harbor.

Through this geographic landscape, native Hawaiians were able to create sustainable and thriving ecosystems. Using fresh water, they grew marsh plants in wetlands and created closed mariculture systems such as fish ponds that benefited from nutrient-rich shallow rivers, Kajihiro explains.

Workers building one of the giant fuel storage tanks at the Navy Red Hill Facility in a black and white photo
This 1942 Navy photo shows miners building one of Red Hill’s 20 giant underground fuel tanks, connected by a mile-long tunnel. US Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District

But military expansion did not take into account this social and ecological value of Kapukaki. The U.S. government instead used the land for bulk storage, so today the 250-billion-gallon fueling facility sits 100 feet above one of Oahu’s largest drinking water reservoirs. Built in 1943, the facility’s 20 fuel tanks are 250 feet tall and 100 meters in diameter and are hidden inside cavities mined into the volcanic rock. The tanks are connected to three pipelines that run through a tunnel to a pumping station in Pearl Harbor, 2.5 miles away.

“That’s why Red Hill exists. It was used to create this fuel supply that would be secretly buried in the mountain and supposedly protected from attack,” says Kajihiro. As a result, military engineering and infrastructure were prioritized over hydrology and ecology. This pattern was repeated by industrial interests on the island.

Today, the sugar plantations that drained water from Oahu decades ago have been succeeded by real estate developers. Those companies use old agricultural irrigation systems, consisting of tunnels dug into mountains and wells placed in drier, more commercial areas, to siphon resources from local communities and businesses. Kajihiro points to this as a major source of both the development of capitalism in Hawaii and the water conflict.

The Navy uses a blue pH meter to test Red Hill water on Oahu
A marine contractor tests water samples from a granular activated carbon filter at the Red Hill well following a major oil spill in 2021.

Leaking again and again

In 1947, just four years after Red Hill opened, the facility began leaking fuel. Data from the Sierra Club shows that the storage facility has leaked more than 188,000 gallons of chemicals over its 80-year history. The Navy, meanwhile, has denied reports of ongoing leaks.

A 27,000-gallon leak at the facility in 2014 drew criticism from the Honolulu Water Supply Board as well as local environmental advocates and communities. The crisis brought the aging facility’s problems into the spotlight, and when history repeated itself last year, the Navy apparently discovered a 14,000-gallon leak. This event contaminated the water with hydrocarbons approximately 350 times higher than those considered safe for drinking. Drinking this dangerous water can cause a wide range of health conditions, most commonly nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps. In a federal health survey, residents who drank the water also reported skin irritation, rashes, dizziness, fatigue and headaches.

With decades of continuous leaks, jet fuel has likely penetrated the surface, prompting government intervention, said Wayne Chung Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. He adds that older historic seeps may push the water table further down.

To prevent nearby civilian wells from drawing contaminated water, in December 2021, the Hawaii Water Supply Board closed the Halawa Shaft, which served more than 100,000 residents as the island’s largest source of fresh water. With the closure of three major wells, Hawaiians have been asked to reduce their water use by 10 percent due to increased demand and stress on the remaining open wells on other parts of the island.

Eventually, repeated leaks and continued pressure from local environmental groups lead to an emergency order by the Department of Health to shut down and empty the fuel facility. In March 2022, the Department of Defense ordered the fuel depot to be permanently closed. The decision marked a shift in the Pentagon’s years-long narrative that the facility was necessary for national security, Tanaka said.

Despite the emergency order, more than 100 million gallons of fuel still remain at Red Hill. The military plans to complete removal of the chemicals by the end of 2024, according to the fuel disposal plan the Navy submitted to the Hawaii State Department of Health. But on July 20, the Department of Health rejected the plan, citing a lack of supplies. and details of the defueling process.

While government agencies debate resolutions, the full extent of the crisis remains unknown: Navy secrets make it unclear whether more fuel is leaking into the aquifer, Tanaka says. On June 13, branch officials released an internal report that found human error made the leaks worse. For the first time, they admitted that Red Hill was not safe for Oahu.

Tanaka says there is a marked difference in local response to the latest spill. There is now broad support for closing the facility, including members of the city council and state legislature, as well as local businesses, environmental and health organizations.

“Everyone is investing in the future of life on this island. Supposedly, military spending here is one of the pillars of the economy,” says Tananka. “But you’re seeing this shift where everyone is starting to ask if it’s not in our best interest to allow them to abuse our community. It is quite remarkable to see this change.”

[Related: A new law is putting astronomy back in the hands of Native Hawaiians]

Dwindling water supplies, short-term rains and an environmental crisis on the island have drawn new attention to how dangerous the ecosystem is. Water systems on Oahu are complex and interconnected. With the closure of the Halawa Shaft and two other major wells, residential water is drawn from sources further west, such as Honolulu and the surrounding valleys.

But Tanaka warns that this is not sustainable. Over-pumping of coastal wells can cause salt water to enter the system, resulting in undrinkable salt water. Elevated chloride levels in one of Oahu’s already pumped wells indicate unhealthy stress on the island’s water resources. As chloride levels rise and precipitation declines further stress the wells, the time is getting closer to draining the fuel at Red Hill and moving it out of Hawaii.

Disruption of the water cycle also threatens the future of Oahu. Groundwater sources, for example, transport nutrients to sources where fish feed. “The characteristics of our native plants and ecosystems allow us to recharge our aquifers because they capture rain and fog droplets, which then percolate to the groundwater surface,” says Tanaka.

For Muneoka and other Native Hawaiians, it’s more than the Navy Yard at Red Hill. Muneoka equates the fuel in water with death at the source of life.

“It is our responsibility to make sure that this deep underground water source, which must be clean and intact, can continue to operate without interruption,” he says. “One of the properties of water is that you can’t touch it without getting wet, so everything is connected. So one actor’s use of that water affects the rest of us.

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