The Water Crisis In Hawaii Highlights America’s Failing Infrastructure
It’s been almost a year since it was confirmed that jet fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii leaked into the water system, threatening the primary source of Oahu’s fresh water (Hawai’i Public Radio). After mounting pressure, the Navy permanently shut down the facility and agreed to comply with defueling the tanks. However, despite an emergency order and public efforts calling for the removal of more than 100 million gallons of fuel from the deteriorating tanks, the Navy has failed to defuel them. Its failure to do so extends the water crisis in Hawaii, risking the lives of those dependent on the water source.
The impact of the water contamination was not isolated to the base. The Board of Water Supply shut down its Halawa shaft and 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). Still, they have been forced to ration their water usage to 10% to counter lower-than-normal rainfall and the persistent closure of their main water source, with no accommodation from the Navy to relocate or distribute bottled water (Hawaii News Now, KHON2 News). And while the Board of Water Supply officials are trying to find a new water source “outside the contamination zone,” it’s estimated that it will take at least five to seven years before the alternative source is viable.
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The water crisis in Hawaii 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 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). And the current water and sewage crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, is the result of government failure that was years in the making (The ARD).
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 ensure safe drinking water for all, it relies on self-reporting from state and local governments, water system companies, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Monitoring and preventing a water crisis in areas that are already experiencing “historical, structural and systemic racism” leaves room for continual “political neglect and ethical failures” (NRDC).
They are often committed by powerful institutions with 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. While HDOH has ruled for the suspension and defueling of the site, the Navy has stalled by failing to provide a detailed defueling plan that would “execute safe and expeditious” removal of the fuel (HDOH). In their initial plan, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) claimed that the earliest the tanks could be defueled is by the end of 2024 (DOD). The Hawaiʻi Department of Health rejected their July proposal and is currently reviewing an updated plan to complete defueling by July 2024 (HDOH).
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. “I think it’s time for action now. It is time. We cannot wait any longer,” said BWS chief engineer Ernest Lau (KHON2 News). The water resource is precious. It’s irreplaceable. It’s pure. There is no substitute for pure water. And our lives depend on it.”
• 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.
*This piece was originally published on 1/12/22. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 9/20/22.