Earthjustice and the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi welcomed the U.S. Navy’s decision today to dismiss the two appeals it filed challenging the Hawaiʻi Health Department’s Emergency Order to defuel the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. In withdrawing its appeals, the U.S. Navy concedes that storing over 100 million gallons of fuel just 100 feet above Oʻahu’s primary aquifer poses an imminent threat to the island’s drinking water supply.
“It never made any sense for the Department of Justice to waste federal resources appealing the Health Department’s common sense order to urgently and safely defuel these tanks,” said Wayne Tanaka, Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi Chapter Director. “We are glad that after nearly four long months, they’ve decided to stop wasting time and start fixing this problem.”
The Navy’s decision to withdraw its appeals came after a ruling against them in state court earlier this week. State Environmental Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree denied the Navy’s motion to put the state court appeal on hold, citing the ongoing threat the Red Hill Facility poses to the water supply.
“In his ruling from the bench, Judge Crabtree made clear that, as long as fuel remains in the Red Hill Facility, our water supply will continue to face imminent peril,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, the lead attorney representing the Sierra Club in legal proceedings relating to the emergency order.
Honolulu now faces a 20% water shortage due to the contamination. Water users are being asked to voluntarily reduce their consumption by 10% to protect the smaller, secondary water sources from being overused. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply closed three drinking water supplies near the area contaminated by the Navy’s jet fuel in order to better protect the public’s health and to help prevent the spread of the pollution in the aquifer. Board of Water Supply officials are concerned that new reports indicate the plume of pollution is spreading towards East Honolulu. It is still not known how much fuel remains in the water supply.
Hawaiʻi’s Health Department issued the emergency order in December 2021, after the water supply for nearly 100,000 residents was contaminated by jet fuel from the Red Hill Facility. At first, the U.S. Navy had promised to comply with the emergency order, but then filed appeals challenging the order in both state and federal courts. In its initial court filings, the Department of Justice claimed on behalf of the Navy that continuing to store over one hundred million gallons of fuel in the 80-year-old Red Hill Facility did not pose an “imminent peril” to Oʻahu’s principal source of drinking water.
The Navy pursued its appeals despite significant public outrage and continued pressure from elected officials and community advocates, and changes in the official position of the U.S. Pentagon. On March 7, 2022, the Pentagon made a sudden about-face, when it admitted that operating the 80-year-old facility “makes a lot less sense today” than when it was constructed in the 1940s and said that the Red Hill tanks would be defueled and permanently closed. Nonetheless, the Navy persisted in its legal appeals.
“This is a big win for O‘ahu’s residents, who should be able to turn on the taps in their homes without fear that the water they serve their families is toxic,” said Henkin. “Now that the Navy has dropped its challenge to the Department of Health’s authority to address this public health and environmental crisis, the Department needs to stick to its guns and do everything in its power to make the Navy work quickly and safely to drain the Red Hill storage tanks.”
“Governor David Ige, Health Director Dr. Char, please don’t let us down,” added Tanaka. “Don’t cut the Navy any slack, when the future of our island remains at stake.”