Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks visited the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii on Tuesday amid the ongoing water crisis at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
After more than 14,000 gallons of fuel spilled from the facility Nov. 20 into the base’s water supply, service members and their families complained of contaminated water, citing rashes after showers, stomachaches after drinking and water smelling of fuel.
“We recognize the need to continue to care for all affected personnel and their families and help them return to their homes in a safe and expeditious manner,” Hicks said after her visit. “And even though the Navy is leading our efforts, solving this problem will require all of us in DoD and across the Services to be rowing in the same direction.”
Hicks met with several families living in the impacted base housing communities, and toured the Red Hill Facility. More than 93,000 people live in communities affected by the spill, including the Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and other military housing areas.
Hicks’s visit comes one day after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that he was closely monitoring the situation.
“My expectation is that military leaders in Hawaii will continue to do everything they can — as fast as they can — to return residents safely back to their homes and to communicate clearly and frequently the steps they are taking to do so,” Austin said.
Conflicting reports originally came out regarding the water contamination issue. Originally, the Navy stated that there was no fuel detected in base water. That was later disproved by further tests conducted by the Hawaii Department of Health and a private water testing laboratory in California.
The question as to how the water became contaminated is also unclear. The first official statements on the matter stated fuel leaked from the facility. However, a Dec. 12 statement from the Navy claims that the leak was actually a spill from inside one of the facility’s access tunnels and not from the structure itself.
The Red Hill Facility was shut down Nov. 28 for the foreseeable future.
Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer for Hawaii’s Board of Water Supply, said the Navy was also downplaying the issue at a separate water source known as the Aiea-Halawa well, which recorded contamination levels Dec. 5.
“I got a call a couple hours later, from the same person in the Navy, basically trying to downplay the test result as not indicative of what’s in the aquifer,” Lau said. “So my question to that individual was: ‘Wasn’t the water in that pipe you took the sample from coming out of that shaft? If it’s not coming out of the shaft, where did the diesel come from?’”
The plan moving forward, Hicks said, is for her to personally work with other DoD senior leaders to ensure that the water crisis remains in the spotlight.
“I am committed to ensuring the health and well-being for our service members, their families, the people of Hawaii, and the environment,” Hicks said.
Hicks also met with Hawaii Gov. David Ige, senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, state health officials and representatives Ed Case and Kaiali’i Kahele.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.