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Red Hill board accuses Navy of backing off transparency vow

Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility Pump Room. (Shannon Haney/U.S. Navy)

As the military tries to highlight progress on efforts to close the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel facility, members of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative are accusing the federal government of walking back on its commitments to transparency ahead of a public meeting scheduled for Thursday.

As the military tries to highlight progress on efforts to close the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel facility, members of the Red Hill Community Representation Initiative are accusing the federal government of walking back on its commitments to transparency ahead of a public meeting scheduled for Thursday.

The CRI—which is made up of a mixture of local residents and activists along with military personnel and family members affected by the Red Hill water crisis—was created as part of a 2023 federal consent order regarding the closure of Red Hill.

It was established based on community requests for a voice in the defueling and shutdown process after fuel from Red Hill tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93, 000 people, in November 2021. The Red Hill facility sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer most of Honolulu relies on for drinking water.

But members of the CRI say the Navy officials are upset with how meetings have gone and are trying to change the rules to muzzle criticism.

On Monday evening the Navy put out a media release that said that it and the Defense Logistics Agency are “prioritizing the requirements of the 2023 Administrative Consent Order (ACO ) to ensure a productive and respectful forum to share information on the topics of Red Hill defueling, closure, and drinking water requirements.”

In the release, the Navy said federal officials would attend Thursday’s meeting and that they would “discuss each of the topics that relate to defueling, closure, and drinking water actions.” It listed as agenda items a recent investigation into the current quality of Navy drinking water, updates on the transition between the Red Hill defueling task force and the new closure task force, discussion on website and data reporting, and a segment to “establish CRI Guidelines and Processes.”

But not long after, the CRI released its own news release charging that the Navy had “published a media statement that included a false agenda for the next meeting of the Community Representation Initiative for Red Hill (CRI ), a list of unilateral principles and expectations for the operation of the CRI, and a fake CRI website. The real members of the CRI reject this attempt to commandeer its meetings and undermine their emphasis on transparency and accountability.”

In a statement, CRI Chair Marti Townsend, a prominent local environmental activist, said that “the Navy’s attempt to strong-arm the CRI is a significant setback in the Navy’s stated mission to rebuild trust with the people of O ‘ahu after their water supply was permanently poisoned by a jet fuel spill from Red Hill.”

In March 2022 the Navy and the state Department of Health said they had successfully cleaned the contaminated water system. But many residents had doubts.

In December the EPA released a report after testing four homes of residents complaining of symptoms. Three of them had traces of petroleum in the water, and in each case previous Navy testing had shown no traces. In January an influx in complaints from residents on the Navy waterline prompted the Navy to extend its water monitoring programs for an additional year. The Navy now acknowledges that some homes still might have contamination but maintains that the main water system is safe.

Relations between the Navy and the CRI have from the beginning been strained, but have become particularly contentious since the new year after federal officials canceled a scheduled Jan. 18 meeting.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations, Energy and Facilities Robert Thompson wrote a letter to members saying, “As you know, the meeting in December did not go well, and so we will defer the meeting in January on the 18th that you have requested and will look forward to our next CRI meeting in February. … In order to have more effective meetings, we are evaluating the structure of the CRI and will work with you to establish operating procedures and ground rules that will promote civil discussion and the effective exchange of information.”

The CRI’s members held the January meeting as scheduled at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, sitting on one side of the table with empty chairs on the other side where federal officials would have sat. In its Monday release the Navy acknowledged the no-show in January, saying that “the signatory agencies took a purposeful pause to re-­evaluate the effectiveness of the process, ensure that the signatories were adhering to the agreement, and improve the outcomes directed by the (consent order ).”

The Navy said that during the “reset time ” the Navy, DLA and EPA finalized new procedures and shared them with elected CRI members, as well as hired additional staff and “improved access to information to better support the CRI.”

But the Navy asserted that “following (Navy ) and DLA efforts to consult with the EPA and the elected community representatives throughout January and early February, the CRI meeting held on Feb. 15 did not live up to the (Navy )’s and DLA’s enduring commitment to interact with stakeholders in a safe and respectful information sharing forum.”

“That the Navy now wants to rewrite these rules to make themselves feel ‘safe and respected’ is a distraction from the real issue here, which is that the Navy’s water supply is still hurting people, and the Red Hill fuel tanks remain a serious threat to the rest of the island’s water supply, ” Townsend said. “Making the Navy feel more comfortable has never made our extensive ‘to do’ list.”

Joint Task Force Red Hill, the military organization, this month removed the 104 million gallons of fuel that sat in tanks above the aquifer, and completed the removal of “accessible residual fuel ” in the tanks.

It will fall to the newly formed Navy Closure Task Force-Red Hill to remove remaining sludge in the tanks and in the pipelines connecting Red Hill to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, a process that will take place in conjunction with the removal of the pipelines. During the February CRI meeting, the Red Hill facility’s former fuel director Shannon Bencs asked officials how they will approach community safety as they move forward with that process.

“Now that you’ve de-­fueled the tanks and the pipelines, now there’s poisonous toxic fumes in those tanks, and the only way to vent them out is through the top of Red Hill and then through the (vents ), ” Bencs said, warning that it will be “extremely toxic, and it will flow down to Halawa Valley and down to Pearl Harbor.”

Rear Adm. Stephen Barnett, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, told Bencs, “That is something that we’ll be working through as far as the ventilation, ” and that the Navy would ensure the community would be notified.

“The Navy has a long way to go yet to solve the Red Hill water crisis—they still do not know the full extent of the damage done—and it has been less than completely honest with us throughout this crisis, ” Townsend said.


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