Flushed Down the Drain: Families Lose Trust in Navy Over Red Hill Spill

January 19, 2022Maggie BenZvi
Navy diver

Master Diver Brian Simic and his wife, Jamie, are only two of those speaking up in the wake of the Red Hill fuel spill at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, wanting answers about their families’ safety. Photo courtesy of Jamie Simic.

First the Navy said the water was safe to drink.

Then it shut down a local well without alerting the public.

Then it admitted the water was contaminated and began flushing it through hydrants onto neighborhood streets without required permits.

Now, as the Navy claims test results show the well is no longer substantially contaminated, families who want proof are told to submit Freedom of Information Act requests

At this point, military families who live at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on the island of Oahu don’t believe a word the Navy says.

red hill
Sailors and Marines assigned to various commands hand out fresh water at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Navy Exchange Mall parking lot. The JBPHH water quality recovery is a joint US military initiative working closely with State of Hawaii, Department of Health, Honolulu Board of Water Supply, US government, and independent organizations to restore a safe water delivery system to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam military housing communities through testing, treatment, and repair. US Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Joseph M. Buliavac.

A group of families and advocates held a roundtable Saturday, Jan. 15, to discuss the health effects on their families from the pollution and the anger they feel toward the Navy. The roundtable in Honolulu was organized by Well Law Firm, which is representing some families in legal action over the contamination in drinking water around the base’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility.

Army Maj. Amanda Feindt’s entire family, including two young children, was in and out of the hospital in early December 2021 in extreme gastrointestinal distress. She wanted test results from the children’s on-base school to see if they had ingested toxic hydrocarbons, so she called the Navy. “I was very upset, in tears. I had completely lost my bearings at that point,” she said Saturday. “And they said file a [Freedom of Information Act] request like anyone else.”

The Navy responded to Coffee or Die Magazine’s request for clarification about FOIA requests by saying that as the water is flushed from the system, samples will be taken and sent to certified labs. “The Hawaii Department of Health will be the final release authority for those results,” Lt. Cmdr. Marissa Huhmann told Coffee or Die.

“The reason I got involved and said, ‘Hey, I’m taking the rank off my chest,’ is because I’m a mom first,” Feindt said. “This is wrong, what is going on is wrong, and I will keep saying it.”

Red Hill spill
This 1942 US Navy photo shows miners building just one of the 20 fuel tanks, which are connected by a miles-long tunnel. US Department of Defense photo.

Red Hill, or Kapukaki as it is known among native Hawaiians, is a volcanic mountain ridge that serves as the site for a Navy fuel installation first constructed in 1940. The installation is composed of 20 tanks, each one the size of a 25-story building and capable of holding 12.5 million gallons of jet fuel. It sits approximately 100 feet above the Oahu Sole Source Aquifer that provides fresh water to 77% of the island, including the city of Honolulu and the residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

When a 14,000-gallon spill occurred at the Red Hill facility on Nov. 20, 2021, the Navy originally told residents of the base that their water was safe to drink.

“My staff and I are drinking the water on base this morning, and many of my team live in housing and drink and use the water as well,” base commander Capt. Erik Spitzer said. 

Spitzer later said the water was dangerous and apologized.

“I regret I did not tell our families not to drink the water,” said Spitzer. “I said in my notification that my staff and I were drinking the water. That was not a cover, we were. We truly thought the testing results indicated the water was safe to drink.”

Reps. Kai Kahele and Ed Case toured the Red Hill facility in mid-December and watched Navy divers skimming fuel from the water.

“There’s not trace amounts of fuel. There’s a lot of fuel in the Red Hill well. I can only describe it as have a bowl of water and pour balsamic vinegar in […] and see the black balsamic separate from the water,” Kahele told Hawaii News Now. “That is probably one of the things that shocked me the most.”

Red Hill spill
An aerial view of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman.

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, agrees with the balsamic vinegar analogy and thinks that there will be an ongoing problem with fuel clinging to the interior of the well. “It’s like washing an oily pot with just water,” Tanaka told Coffee or Die. “Oil sticks to things. It doesn’t let go without some kind of detergent.”

Tanaka is skeptical that the current strategy of flushing the wells will serve any purpose. “Just to flush out the system is a really experimental approach to dealing with petroleum contamination. I have never heard of any other situation like this. So we’re really kind of shooting in the dark as to whether this is a massive waste of water,” said Tanaka.

The Navy has installed carbon filters in an attempt to clean the water before it is flushed. But if any remaining contaminated water gets flushed into the nearby Halawa Stream, it will almost certainly have an effect on aquatic life, and any effect on aquatic life will in turn affect civilians. “The estuary to the north is where people fish and crab still,” Tanaka explained.

red hill
Sailors and Marines assigned to various commands hand out fresh water at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Navy Exchange Mall parking lot, Dec. 9, 2021. US Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Joseph M. Buliavac.

Though the Navy suspended use of the Red Hill facility on Nov. 27, it did not announce that change until Dec. 6.

On Nov. 30, after complaints of illnesses, the Navy publicly recommended that residents stop using tap water if odors were present.

On Dec. 2, Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, announced that tests had discovered “clear indications of petroleum products in the gas space just above the waterline in the Red Hill well.”

But the November 2021 spill is not the first fuel spill in recent memory. In 2014, 27,000 gallons of fuel leaked from a tank. And in May 2021, the Navy acknowledged a 1,600-gallon spill. At a Dec. 22, 2021, Department of Health hearing, Capt. James Meyer, commander of the Navy Facilities Engineering Command, revised the amount spilled in May from the original estimate of 1,600 gallons to 19,000 gallons.

Last week, Converse told the House Armed Forces Subcommittee on Readiness that both incidents were due to “operator error.” A report released in October 2021 about the May spill said that an operator closed pipeline valves in an incorrect sequence before starting a fuel transfer.

David Henkin, an attorney with Earthjustice, told Honolulu’s KHON-TV after the Dec. 22 hearing, “The take-home message here is the Navy has no idea what’s going on at Red Hill. It has no way to control its fuel and keep it out of its water supply or our water supply.”

Mazie Hirono, US senator from Hawaii, during a tour of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. State Rep. Bob McDermott says the Navy’s response to the Red Hill spill has been “a delaying tactic with a fuzzy timeline.” Photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman.

Hawaii’s Department of Health ordered the Navy to empty all fuel tanks at Red Hill. The Navy contested that order initially but has now agreed to move forward with attempts to create a plan for implementation of that order. The deadline for that plan is Feb. 23. The Navy had not responded to requests for clarification on the refueling timeline or logistics at the time of this article’s publication. The question becomes, where will the Navy put the fuel? Additionally, what is the future for Red Hill as a storage facility?

Republican state Rep. Bob McDermott announced Tuesday that he will be running for US Senate against incumbent Sen. Brian Schatz, and a major plank of his platform is shutting down Red Hill entirely. 

“The current delegation is engaging in double talk, a kabuki theater,” McDermott, a former Marine officer, said in his candidacy announcement. “This is not a permanent shutdown nor a decommissioning of the facility — it is simply a delaying tactic with a fuzzy timeline presented.”

Feindt, the Army major, made clear this past weekend at the roundtable that she is not planning to wait for the Navy. “Service members, we raised our right hand,” she said. “We volunteered for this, and with that comes potential to be in harm’s way. We know that’s the name of the game. And that’s part of that risk. But our families absolutely did not, and I stand firm in that. So for all of our military spouses, our civilians, the people of Hawaii, our children — I’m fighting for every single one of you.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the fact that Maj. Amanda Feindt has two children, not three.

Read Next: ‘Water Is Life’: One Woman’s Fight for Truth About Hawaii Fuel Spill

Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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