Distrust persists after Navy report on Hawaii’s contaminated water

HONOLULU — Lauren Wright continues to be wary of the water that comes out of faucets at the US Navy family home in Hawaii, saying she doesn’t believe it’s safe.

Wright, her sailor husband and their three children, aged 8 to 17, were among thousands of people who fell ill late last year after fuel from military storage tanks leaked into the water off the tap from Pearl Harbor.

About 6,000 Navy, Army and Air Force families were affected by the toxic spill. The Wright family has returned to their military housing after spending months in Honolulu hotels, but they continue to take safety measures, including short five-minute showers. They don’t drink tap water or cook with it.

A Navy investigation released Thursday blamed the fuel leak and subsequent water crisis on mismanagement and human error. Some Hawaii residents, including Native Hawaiians, officials and military families, said the report does not help restore confidence in the Navy.

“I was hoping for at least some sort of remorse for the families and everyone involved in this case,” Wright said.

She said the ordeal changed her view of the military a decade ago when her husband first joined.

“I was the proud wife of the Navy, you know, stickers and T-shirts,” she said. “I feel like the Navy failed what they promised every service member. They failed a lot of things. And I’m not that proud.

The Navy is hard to trust in part because Hawaii residents and officials have for years questioned the safety of the giant fuel storage tanks that sit on top of a major aquifer since the World War II, said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, former administrator of the Water Resources Management Commission. .

“Publishing a report saying they were lying to us is not a step towards building trust,” he said. “Unloading and taking out reservoirs permanently, setting aside funds to clean up water systems across Oahu, and replanting our forests — when I see steps like this happening — it’s a tangible step toward rebuilding trust.”

Some native Hawaiians said the report only deepened a distrust of the military that dates back at least to 1893, when a group of American businessmen, with the support of US Marines , overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom. More recently, Native Hawaiians fought to stop targeted bombings on Kahoolawe Island and in the Makua Valley west of Oahu.

“There’s no evidence that I should trust them,” said Kalehua Krug, with Ka’ohewai, a cultural organization that advocates for a clean aquifer for Oahu. “They’ve been lying for generations.”

The Department of Defense recognizes that the water issues “have damaged the trust between the department and the people of Hawaii, including Native Hawaiians – and it is committed to restoring that trust,” Gordon Trowbridge said. Acting Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. in a report.

The investigative report released Thursday listed a series of cascading errors beginning May 6, 2021, when operator error caused a hose to burst and spill 21,000 gallons of fuel during its transfer between reservoirs. Most of the fuel spilled into a fire extinguisher line and remained there for six months, causing the line to collapse. A trolley slammed into this sagging line on November 20, releasing 20,000 gallons of fuel.

The report says officials failed to assume the best of what was happening when the spills happened, instead of assuming the worst, which helped them forget about the seriousness of the situation.

The spill contaminated the Navy’s water system. The fuel did not enter the Honolulu municipal water supply. But concerns that oil could migrate through the aquifer and enter the city’s wells prompted the Honolulu Water Supply Board in December to shut down a key well serving some 400,000 people. The agency asked residents to conserve water because of this and the unusually dry weather.

The tanks continue to pose a threat to Oahu’s drinking water as long as they contain fuel, said Ernest Lau, director and chief engineer of the water utility.

The report that it will take more than two years to empty the facility is concerning, Lau said on Friday.

“The fact that they built this massive facility in three years, so can’t they find a way to do all the work in less than two and a half years…I think it can be done,” he said. he said, urging the Navy to consider shortening the deadline.

This week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “led the creation of a joint task force headed by a senior naval admiral dedicated solely to a rapid replenishment effort, who will report to him through the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, to oversee the resupply of Red Hill as quickly as security permits,” Trowbridge said. “The Department recognizes that what we say is far less important than what we do, which is why its top leaders are focused on this effort.”

Kristina Baehr, an attorney who represents more than 100 military and civilian families who have filed claims against the Navy, said it was particularly disturbing to read in the report how pervasive errors were.

“This is a national security issue,” she said, noting that many of her customers were still suffering the effects of contaminated water. “And our military families and communities cannot be mission ready if the government has made them sick.”

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