WORDS BY AMBER X. CHEN
PhotographS by Nani Welch Keliʻihoʻomalu / Passion Fruit
The Frontline talks to water protectors in O’ahu, Hawai’i, who are sounding the alarm over growing threats to their precious water.
Nearly a year ago, the Department of Defense made a commitment to the people of O’ahu: it would shut down a toxic facility polluting their drinking water. That promise has yet to be fulfilled.
Though the rest of the world has largely thrown a blind eye to the situation in Hawai’i, community members haven’t forgotten. They can’t. They still live with the fallout of water contamination and empty promises. The government has made little progress in shutting down Red Hill, a military fuel storage facility that sits precariously above O’ahu’s sole source aquifer. Since it was built in 1943, Red Hill has leaked at least 200,000 gallons of fuel.
Hawai’i’s water crisis is not only ongoing—it’s worsening. Though the public’s worries initially focused on jet fuel exposure, they are now increasingly worried about PFAS, too. PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a group of toxic “forever chemicals” that remain indefinitely in the environment and are found in products like non-stick cookware and water-resistant clothes. These chemicals have been linked to health effects like liver damage and cancer. And they’ve been detected in O’ahu’s groundwater.
Organizers are no longer counting on the government. They’ve been forced to take matters into their own hands. The military isn’t protecting the people of O’ahu. Instead, it is jeopardizing their very existence.
In December 2021, Amanda Zawieruszynski found herself in the emergency room with a severe headache and chemical burns in her mouth and throat. Zawieruszynski, a supervising contracting officer for the Department of Defense, lives in military housing in O’ahu with her husband, who is on active duty with the U.S. Navy. She said doctors pointed to water contamination as the likely cause of her condition.
As a result, Zawieruszynski has decided to end her nearly 12-year career with the Department of Defense. She plans to move her family out of Hawai’i next.
“As a military spouse, you want to support the career of your significant other, but during this situation, it’s become very hard to do so, especially when it’s constant lies from the Navy,” Zawieruszynski said. “It’s best that we go back to the mainland to get the medical care that we need so that we can survive.”
The Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility currently stores about 104 million gallons of jet fuel in its tanks, which have leaked into an aquifer that provides water for almost a quarter of the O’ahu’s 1 million residents. The Department of Defense announced in March it would shut down Red Hill for good, following a 14,000-gallon leak in November 2021 and a months-long campaign led by the grassroots organization O’ahu Water Protectors.
It’s now been nearly a year since then, yet activists still worry that fuel from Red Hill continues to leak and linger in O’ahu’s water supply. And as long as Red Hill contains fuel, which is combustible, it must also store aqueous film-forming foam, a fire suppressant that contains PFAS.
In November 2022, an estimated 1,300 gallons of PFAS spilled inside a tunnel at Red Hill. Residents are worried that the toxic chemicals may have spread even farther because heavy rains and flooding happened during the spill. Activists allege that they still don’t know how the Navy is cleaning up any pollution from the incident to ensure nearby communities will not be exposed.
A Navy spokesperson told Atmos in an emailed statement that the Navy recovered “the vast majority” of the chemicals and that the Navy collects weekly groundwater samples from nine wells to monitor PFAS contamination. The results are published publicly online on the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Safe Waters website. However, the Navy is still awaiting some sample results and guidance from the Department of Health. It urges concerned residents to call its emergency operations center. The Navy projects it won’t start the defueling process until 2024. The facility’s closure may not come until 2027.
For many organizers, this timeline takes much too long.
“You have all the resources in the world, right?” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i. “There has to be a faster way to defuel. They’re just not treating this as a true emergency.”
A Joint Task Force Red Hill spokesperson told Atmos in an emailed statement that the task force “will continue to look for opportunities to shorten the timeline where possible,” adding that the Joint Task Force is currently “implementing actions required to make the facility safe for defueling … making the necessary repairs, enhancements, and modifications to set the conditions for defueling operations to commence.”
Unfortunately, many residents no longer trust the Navy. They are relying on bottled water donations or purchases. Since Christmas Day 2021, the Shut Down Red Hill Mutual Aid Collective has distributed hundreds of gallons of water to residents at Kapilina Beach Homes, a civilian housing structure on the Navy waterline that faces ongoing lawsuits due to its delay in alerting residents of potential water issues.
“We wouldn’t be able to distribute hundreds of cases of water if there wasn’t a need for it,” said O’ahu water protector Mikey Inouye.
Awapuhi Robinson of Kapilina Beach homes worries about the health risks she’ll face if she drinks from her tap: “We don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now. What if my children grow up without their mother because I get cancer or who knows what happens?”
Organizers are also helping residents advocate for themselves by educating students at schools, putting together community workshops, and teaching affected community members how to write letters to the editor. For people like Robinson, the services organizers provide have been imperative in staying informed about issues the community otherwise would not have known about.
“The purpose of our organizing community is to train, educate, and provide whatever resources they need so that affected community members can become active and engaged agents of change in their own communities,” Inouye said.
“We are protecting what we love. That’s why we stand, and that’s why we do the things we do.”
Organizers recently focused their efforts on bringing community testimonials to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is involved in closing Red Hill. The community submitted about 1,700 testimonies. Organizers believe that the EPA could—and should have been—exercising much more of its regulatory power over Red Hill.
“On the defueling timeline, we continue to be in constant communication with [the Department of Defense] and the State of Hawai’i,” said Alejandro Díaz, a public affairs specialist for the EPA, in an email. “We are providing technical review and analysis of infrastructure improvements and planning work that needs to be conducted so that defueling can be initiated and completed as quickly as possible without incident.”
In the meantime, activists haven’t stopped protesting, door-knocking, or taking to the streets to demand the immediate shutdown of Red Hill. In September, four members of the O’ahu Water Protectors even traveled to Washington, D.C., to bring national attention to the water crisis. That’s one strategy: activists taking turns on the ground.
“The other strategy is finding joy in the movement and celebrating the little wins,” said O’ahu water protector Healani Sonoda-Pale.
When activists started organizing in November 2021, no one believed that the military would ever shut down Red Hill. Then, four months later, the government announced it would. Now, it’s time to keep that promise.
“We have no intention of stopping. The future of this island—and life on it—is at stake. Too much is at stake,” Sonoda-Pale said. “We are protecting what we love. That’s why we stand, and that’s why we do the things we do.”