The U.S. Navy in Hawaii faces stiff opposition from faith communities, environmentalists and state and federal legislators seeking the closure of subterranean fuel tanks that contaminated the water supply of nearly 100,000 military and civilian residents on Oahu late last year.
And the pressure on the Department of Defense has increased since its Feb. 2 decision to appeal the state order to drain the Red Hill storage facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The complex consists of 20 tanks capable of storing 250 million gallons of fuel altogether.
“On a human level, it makes it feel like we’re expendable, that the health of our land and the health of our water is expendable to the United States military, and that it’s worth it to gamble with our lives,” said Dani Espiritu, an Oahu resident and activist who also works in college and justice ministries with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Hawaii.
“Those tanks sit above the biggest aquifer on our island, and if that is compromised … it would mean that in several generations we might not be able to have water on our island, and that is significant.”
Potential leaks also are a threat to the environment and spirituality not only in Honolulu but throughout the islands, Espiritu added.
“For Hawaiians as with all indigenous people, the relationship with the land is a huge part of our physical and our spiritual health, and a huge part of life. The land is embedded in our generational connections and in our cultural connections. It reveals the relationship between Creator and created, and this crisis threatens those connections.”
While the tanks have been the source of previous environmental concern, the latest trouble began with a November 2021 fuel spill and subsequent reports of contaminated water from base residents and surrounding neighborhoods.
Environmental groups immediately redoubled demands the facility be closed as local and state health officials ordered water tests and that the tanks be defueled. When the Department of Defense announced it would fight that order, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation seeking to permanently close the Red Hill facility.
With legal action looming, a group of local churches have kicked off an interfaith campaign to build support for the frontline activists who will be fighting the Navy through advocacy and court action.
“Our intent is to be a concerted voice alongside those who are going to be in the trenches,” said David Baumgart Turner, a leader of the faith-based effort and pastor of Church of the Crossroads, a United Church of Christ congregation in Honolulu.
The group purchased a full-page newspaper ad Feb. 27 declaring interfaith support for shutting down the Red Hill facility.
“Any and all efforts to repair and improve the tanks will not address the fundamental problem that may ultimately lead to more leaks and a catastrophic contamination of the Southern O‘ahu Basal Aquifer, the primary source for drinking water for the island,” according to the declaration signed by more than 150 faith leaders.
The declaration included an explanation of the spiritual significance of water in Hawaii as “a symbol of purity and rebirth and a metaphor for actively engaged and transformative lives. Protecting water is a sacred act.”
It also declared the power of interfaith cooperation in the crisis.
“As individuals and groups who represent a diversity of religious and spiritual traditions, we are united in our shared values of aloha and respect for all living things; in our appreciation of the natural world as the foundation for the wellbeing of all; and in our understanding that water is an indispensable element and source for life. It is through our shared values that we call for the immediate and permanent shutdown of the fuel tanks at Kapūkakī (Red Hill).”
Finding allies in the effort to close the facility isn’t difficult, Turner said. “I have never seen an issue in Hawaii that has as much unanimity of opinion as this one. Across the board, everyone is aghast of what is going on, horrified by the potential of what could happen if these tanks break down, and disillusioned by the duplicity we have received from the Navy and the federal government. Even the most conservative people I know say there is no way of painting this in a way that makes the Navy look good.”
Espiritu said her Hawaiian heritage and Christian faith give her hope and motivate her to do what she can to see Red Hill closed down.
“I look at how Christ engaged with empire, and I offer my prayers on this because I know the Lord can do anything,” said Espiritu, whose local wells had to be temporarily closed in December because of leaks. “If I didn’t have my faith, it would be really depressing.”