Hawai’i Episcopalians, interfaith partners push US Navy to speed up closure of WWII-era fuel storage facility

By Lynette Wilson
Posted May 23, 2023

In August 2022, water protectors on Kauai came together along a roadside and held signs calling for the Red Hill storage facility’s closure to get the attention of Vice President Kamala Harris as she arrived for vacation in August 2022. Photo: Will Sato

[Episcopal News Service] Hawai’i Episcopalians and interfaith partners are stepping up their campaign to push the U.S. Navy to accelerate its timeline to defuel and permanently close a World War II-era underground storage facility that sits on Red Hill 100 feet above one of Oahu’s main aquifers.

“They [the Navy] are talking about taking until summer 2024 to defuel and then 2027 to shut down completely,” said the Rev. Jenn Latham, associate rector at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church and co-chair of the Diocese of Hawai’i’s Environmental Justice and Creation Care Task Force.

For those living on Hawai’i’s largest inhabited island and who depend on the aquifer for their water needs, its closure is urgent.

“Water is necessary for life; we all need it. For the island of Oahu to continue to sustain human, animal and plant life we need clean water,” Latham said.

Working alongside Hawaii Interfaith Power and Light, Episcopalians and others have embarked on a national letter-writing campaign addressed to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. The letters call for the creation of a civilian task force, additional oversight and transparency, and an immediate “mission critical and emergency” declaration.

The Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility consists of 20 steel-lined, 250-foot vertical tanks measuring 100 feet in diameter built into concreted-reinforced mined cavities under a volcanic mountain ridge near Honolulu. Each tank can store 12.5 million gallons of fuel, for up to 250 million gallons total. The tanks are connected to fueling piers at Pearl Harbor by three, 2.5-mile gravity-fed pipelines.

Hundreds of thousands of military personnel and civilians get their water from the “sole source aquifer,” as it is called. The facility has a history of well-documented spills and ongoing leaks. One of the worst spills happened in November 2021, when a fuel link poisoned the water system serving 100,000 residents and the state ordered the Navy to halt operations.

In early March 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense announced its planned closure, citing a need for more advanced on-and-off-shore fueling capabilities and water contamination concerns.

Since then, concerned citizens and Oahu Water Protectors have stepped up their campaign for accelerating the Navy’s timeline to permanently close the facility and increased transparency in the process.

On May 10, state and local leaders signed a joint statement aimed at holding the military accountable for the site’s ongoing cleanup.

“My sense is what we need is more, The Navy doesn’t move faster for the state government. The Navy only moves faster for people who are commanding the Navy, and that’s the Pentagon and President Biden. So that’s why we targeted those two leaders in our letters,” Latham told ENS.

Throughout the interfaith coalition’s efforts, members have stood alongside Native Hawaiians. The United States, the military and missionaries have a long, complicated history with Hawai’i and its native inhabitants, who once maintained a clean-water-dependent complex agricultural system that stretched from high in the mountains down to the sea. Their way of life was self-sustaining. Over time, Native Hawaiians lost control of their natural resources. Since the 1980s and ‘90s they have worked to reclaim their language and their heritage, and part of that includes restoring their ability to grow their own food, Latham explained.

“The ministry of creation care requires both curiosity about place and local systems, as well as a bold prophetic presence in communities and local government. It also must see into the future to recognize impacts that cannot be reversed and impacts that bring destruction to the land and the ecosystems,” she wrote in a March 2023 post on The Episcopal Church’s Creation Care webpage.

The Episcopal Church’s support for Indigenous peoples in their efforts to protect water and to promote access for all in Hawai’i mirrors efforts in North Dakota and Minnesota.

“The diocese’s support of the ‘Stop Red Hill’ water rights campaign in Hawai’i is a historic moment for the Episcopalian faith. As a denomination committed to ethical principles, we stand with Indigenous communities in their fight for sovereignty and access to clean water,” the Rev. Melanie Mullen, The Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, told ENS.

The church’s Creation Care efforts follow the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which recognize water as a human right.

“The Episcopal Church has made it a priority to ensure that all people have access to clean water,” she said. “We have supported various initiatives, and in 2018, passed a resolution to support the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in opposition to a Minnesota pipeline. As a church, we have learned that being an ally is not enough. We must be co-advocates with Indigenous communities, and we will continue to do so.”

The interfaith letter thanks the president and the secretary of defense for the order last March “to close and decommission” Red Hill and asks for their help in reducing the risk to further damage of the water source on which most Oahu’s residents depend.

“Our land and our people face a huge risk until Red Hill is fully closed,” the letter says.

“Caring for the land and water around us is part of our human sacred trust. So is caring for each other–love of God, love of neighbor.  As people of faith, we urge you to press for a faster and more transparent process,” it closes.

Supporting the letter-writing campaign offers Episcopalians an opportunity to follow the way of love by supporting access to clean water for all, Mullen said.

“We call on all members of our community to support the ‘Stop Red Hill’ campaign in Hawai’i and stand in solidarity with Indigenous communities fighting for their rights,” she said. “Together, we can make a difference and ensure that everyone has access to this fundamental human right.”

-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.