The Water Crisis In Hawaii Highlights America’s Failing Infrastructure
Hawaii’s pristine water and remote location have been a draw for the U.S. military as much as tourists. Both are often to its detriment, as is evident from a severe water crisis in Hawaii.
After residents on a Hawaii military base reported a “fuel-like odor” in their water in late November, health officials found jet fuel leaking from Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility into the water system, affecting about 93,000 residents of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. After mounting pressure, the Navy shut down two wells, relocated military families to hotels across the island, and distributed bottled water to families and officials on the base (Hawai’i Department of Health, ABC News, Military Times).
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The impact of the water contamination was not isolated to the base. The Board of Water Supply shut down its Halawa and Aiea wells as a precaution since the Navy’s Red Hill Shaft shares the aquifer that sources 20% of Honolulu’s residents’ water (Board of Water Supply). If contaminated, “nearly one million people on Oahu who rely on the sole-source aquifer” would instantly lose access to clean water (BWS). Yet those same people were forced to ration their water usage with no accommodation from the Navy to relocate or distribute bottled water (KHON2 News).
“I think this is a foreshadowing of what could happen to the broader community if we don’t do something about the storage of over 180,000,000 gallons of diesel and jet fuel a hundred feet above our drinking water aquifer,” said BWS chief engineer Ernest Lau after the leak. “I think it’s time for action now. It is time. We cannot wait any longer. The water resource is precious. It’s irreplaceable. It’s pure. There is no substitute for pure water. And our lives depend on it” (KHON2 News).
The Red Hills fiasco is reminiscent of another water crisis. In 2014, Michigan state officials switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River. Their cost-cutting move resulted in the systematic poisoning of a low-income, majority-Black community (NRDC). It’s estimated that it would have cost about $80 to $100 a day to treat the water, preventing a crisis that cost the state $626.25 million in a settlement alone (Ars Technica, NBC News).
Though Red Hills and Flint are extreme cases, contaminated water is a social justice crisis across the country, from chemical dumping into landfills and rivers throughout Minnesota to lead seeping out from aging water pipes into thousands of homes in Michigan.
From 2015 to 2019, nearly 40% of the U.S. population got their drinking water from systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. The more severe health-based violations impacted almost 45 million people and contributed to cancer, cognitive and behavioral problems in children, infertility, and nervous system issues. And like most inequalities in this country, people of color, low-income households, and non-native English speakers are the most negatively affected (NRDC).
A water contamination crisis is playing out in U.S. cities, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dos Palos, California, and Brady, Texas (Insider). There are water problems in two of Flint’s neighboring cities, Detroit and Benton Harbor, though not in the predominantly white and affluent town of St. Joseph (The Guardian).
Identifying and remedying a potential water crisis is slow because they often occur in underserved “environmental justice communities” facing racial, economic, and housing disparities. And while the Safe Drinking Water Act is meant to protect and ensure safe drinking water for all, it relies on self-reporting from state and local governments, water system companies, institutions, and the Environmental Protection Agency. So monitoring and preventing a water crisis in areas that are already experiencing “historical, structural and systemic racism” are prone to continual “political neglect and ethical failures” (NRDC).
Often, they are committed by powerful institutions that have the resources and money to move with impunity for years. Environmentalists and political leaders have warned about the threat the outdated Red Hill facility posed to the region’s water system for years, including a 2014 incident where 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from the facility (Civil Beat). In October 2021, the HDOH found the Navy to be in non-compliance in maintaining the facility during a 2020 inspection, resulting in five violations totaling $325,00 (HDOH) prior to the November leak. And while HDOH has ruled for the suspension and defueling of the site, critics are skeptical that a Navy plan to defuel the tanks will lead to a permanent change (BWS, Hawaii News Now).
Access to safe water is a universal human right (United Nations). When large institutions endanger water access by cutting costs and refusing to update their operations, it often comes at the expense of human life.
• The water crisis in Hawaii is the result of years of military negligence despite continued warnings from activists and environmental leaders.
• Nearly 40% of the U.S. population get their drinking water from systems that violate the Safe Drinking Water Act.
• Marginalized communities are disproportionately at risk of having contaminated drinking water.