Hawaii’s new governor plans to take a tougher stance on Red Hill

Environmentalists want the green government to demand more from the navy.

As Hawaii’s new governor promises improved oversight of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility, environmentalists are hoping his administration will press for faster action and more transparency from the military.

Gov. Josh Green’s commitment in his State of the State address last week comes amid community criticism that federal authorities have not done enough to hold the Navy accountable for contaminating the Pearl Harbor-area’s drinking water in 2021 , which made about 2,000 people sick.

Red Hill’s tanks still contain about 100 million gallons of fuel above Oahu’s primary drinking water aquifer, and draining could take until July 2024, according to the Navy.

“I hope that Governor Green’s commitments will be backed up by strong action from him and his government, and most importantly that he will consult with the community groups who have been fighting to prevent this crisis for years and are now dealing with an ongoing one emergency,” said Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Gov. Josh Green said Hawaii “must never again risk toxic substances entering or leaking into our water supply.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

For years, Hawaii’s politicians have taken it easy when it comes to the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage complex, even after contamination began making people sick. A year ago, after the beginning of the crisis, he was governor at the time. David Ige said he was unwilling to call for Red Hill to be closed permanently and said he would consider giving the Navy a permit to continue operations. Ige later expressed support for the permanent closure of Red Hill, but only after the Department of Defense announced it intended to close it forever.

As lieutenant governor, Green spoke with more urgency than Ige about removing the fuel from Red Hill, but did not openly disagree with the governor. Now that he’s at the helm, he’s speaking out forcefully on the subject.

“We must blame the US Navy for the environmental disaster at Red Hill and shut it down for good,” he said in his speech. “To be honest, Hawaii must never again risk toxic substances entering or leaking into our water supply.

“Red Hill’s current oversight is not strong enough,” he added.

call to action

Green said his administration will be reaching out to Red Hill on how the state has been fighting the coronavirus pandemic — with ongoing monitoring and communicating with the public about the draining of Red Hill’s tanks, the quality of Oahu’s water, and efforts to to permanently end World War II. era establishment.

“The Navy needs to be 100% transparent with us and open to the public and their elected leaders, which we are all in this room,” he said.

Environmentalists said words must be followed by action, such as the health department taking bolder steps to get the Navy to defuel Red Hill faster and forcing the military to be more transparent about it.

“The Department of Health clearly has some leverage,” said environmental attorney David Kimo Frankel.

According to Frankel, the Department of Health also has the legal authority to ban the Navy’s use of PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” that leaked from Red Hill in November. You should use it, he said.

Officials from Green’s office and the Department of Health said officials were not available to share more detailed information about Green’s vision for improved oversight.

But in a statement, the governor said his “transparent oversight model” will include weekly meetings with stakeholders for real-time updates and water quality data that will be shared with the public.

While Green lacked specifics, he seemed receptive to local residents’ concerns during his state of the state address.

He said that like many community members, he was not satisfied with a joint presentation by the Navy and the US Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month. Federal agencies are entering into a voluntary oversight agreement that many find toothless and reminiscent of an earlier agreement in 2015 that failed to avert the current crisis.

Hundreds of people have testified in person and online about the EPA’s new proposed consent order with the Navy at Red Hill. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Hawaii Department of Health was a party to the earlier agreement. This time, however, the agency chose not to get involved and instead focus on holding the Navy accountable for a state emergency order.

In his comments on the state of the state, the governor also pledged that his Department of Health will work with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

data needed

BWS chief engineer Ernie Lau said he’s already felt a difference. By directing the director and deputy director of health to meet with him regularly, Lau said Green is “opening the lines of communication.”

Green’s approach so far is a “sharp contrast” to the previous administration, Lau said.

“I really appreciate that the governor is directing his team to engage with us, the Board of Water Supply, on a regular basis,” he said. “I think he understands the gravity of the situation.”

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau speaks at a news conference about an AFFF leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.
Honolulu Board of Water Supply chief engineer Ernie Lau said he needed help getting Navy data. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2022)

From Lau’s point of view, however, there is room for improvement. Data from the Navy’s monitoring wells should be made available to the public and BWS in a more accessible format, he said. It is currently available as a pdf file on the Health Department’s website. And the record itself is not sent directly to the health department from an independent laboratory. It first goes through the Navy, which creates a summary table.

Lau said he asked the Navy to share its original data with BWS, but his request was denied.

“I need regulators, both the Department of Health and the EPA, to apply pressure and direct the Navy to share this information with the community and the Board of Water Supply,” he said. “We want a lab-generated format. No naval reprocessing.”

BWS also asked the Navy to take samples from military monitoring wells so that BWS could conduct its own testing. That request was initially granted, and BWS allowed the Navy to test its own wells, Lau said.

But before BWS could test the military wells, “they changed their minds,” he said. Lau said he may seek help from DOH on the matter in the future.

In a statement, a Navy spokesman said the Navy appreciated the opportunity to test BWS’ Halawa wells and confirmed it would not retaliate.

“Like the Navy, BWS is a water utility and a key stakeholder,” said Mike Andrews, deputy director of public affairs for the Navy. “However, to ensure that only government-approved processes and methods are used, the Navy does not allow any stakeholders or water suppliers to test our drinking water and groundwater monitoring wells.”

“It starts at the top”

Tanaka said Green’s government can “raise its voice as a regulator” by joining advocacy against the proposed EPA consent deal with the Navy. Community groups have called for strict deadlines, tougher penalties for non-compliance and more opportunities for public scrutiny, among other things.

“I hope he stays true to his word that he will ensure a much greater level of accountability in relation to the impacts that we have seen and that may be at risk in the future,” he said.

Overall, leaders set the tone for their organizations, Lau said, and he hopes BWS can work with this administration on common goals.

“It starts at the top,” Lau said. “It’s positive with Gov. Green seeming very supportive and wanting to work with us for the good of our community.”