US defense chief in Hawaii amid distrust after fuel spill

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin waits to greet Norway's Defense Minister Bjorn Arild Gram during an arrival ceremony at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

HONOLULU — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Hawaii this week amid lingering community frustration and distrust after jet fuel from a military storage facility last year spilled into Pearl Harbor’s drinking water, poisoned thousands of military families and threatened the purity of Honolulu’s water supply.

Austin was in Hawaii to meet with his counterparts from several Indo-Pacific region allies. He was also scheduled to meet with the commander of a joint task force in charge of draining fuel from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility so it can be shut down.


Cheri Burness, who lives in Navy housing, won’t drink the tap water in the house she shares with her sailor husband and their two teenage children because she doesn’t believe that it’s safe 10 months after the spill. Her family has spent $3,000 of their own money to install filters on all the faucets in the house so they can bathe, brush their teeth and wash their dishes. She spends $70 to $100 a month to have water delivered to their home for drinking. They also use bottled water.

She recalled how Navy leaders initially told Pearl Harbor water users their water was safe to drink after the November spill. The Navy only told people to stop drinking their tap water after the state Department of Health stepped in. The Navy later flushed clean water through its pipes to cleanse them. In March, the state Department of Health said the tap water in all residential areas served by the Navy’s water system was safe to drink. But Burness said she never got to see the reports for her house after it was tested. She was only told her water was “good.”

“I don’t trust them because cause they did nothing to show me that it ever was fine,” Burness said.

A Navy investigation later showed a cascading series of errors, complacency and a lack of professionalism led to the fuel spill, which contaminated tap water used by 93,000 people. Nearly 6,000 sought medical attention for nausea, headaches and rashes. Some continue to complain of health problems.

The military put families up in hotels for several months, but stopped paying once the health department cleared people to resume drinking their tap water.

Kristina Baehr, an attorney with Texas-based Just Well Law, sued the federal government last month on behalf of four families but said she will be adding more individuals from among the 700 clients she represents. Burness is among her clients.

“They didn’t warn them to stop drinking it, and 6,000 people went to the emergency room,” she said. “Then, many of these people have only gotten sicker over time.”

Austin planned to meet with several families who were impacted, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told Hawaii News Now. An aide traveling with Austin did not immediately return messages Friday to The Associated Press. The meeting was closed to the media. Baehr said her clients were not among those chosen to speak to Austin. However, she said if they had the opportunity to speak to Austin, she said they would tell him to have officials stop saying no one is medically affected by the spill and that there are no long-term effects.

They would also encourage him to provide appropriate medical care to families, safe housing because families claim the homes were not properly remediated, and compassionate reassignment to other bases to all those who ask.

“A lot of people are still stuck in the houses that made them sick,” she said. “So it’s very simple, let people out of the houses that made them sick and fix the houses so that they’re safe for the next people.”

She supports the Navy’s defueling of Red Hill but says it can’t end there.

“While you are focused on defueling, you can’t ignore the 93,000 people you poisoned. You must provide safe housing and real medical care right now for those families,” she said. “This is an urgent need.”

The spill upset a broad cross-spectrum of Hawaii, from liberals to conservatives and veterans to environmentalists. Many Native Hawaiians have been angered given the central role of water in Indigenous traditions that revere water. It’s also deepened deep-seated distrust of the U.S. military among Native Hawaiians that dates to the U.S. military-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

The military plans to drain fuel from the tanks by July 2024 to comply with a Hawaii Department of Health order to shut down the facility.

Honolulu’s water utility and the Sierra Club of Hawaii have expressed concerns about the threat Red Hill poses to Oahu’s water supply ever since 2014, when fuel leaked from one of the storage tanks. But the Navy reassured the public that their water was safe and that it was operating the storage facility properly.

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