As Director for the Sierra Club of Hawai’i Wayne Tanaka recently wrote in The Guardian, the US Navy’s Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility is “a massive underground ‘farm’ of 18-million liter fuel tanks and pipes just 100 feet above metropolitan O’ahu. Its construction began before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Since then, it has leaked over 180,000 gallons of petroleum into the groundwater aquifer that provides drinking water for over 400,000 residents and visitors from Hālawa to Hawaiʻi Kai.”
Regardless of the major threat the facility poses to the local water system and demands from Native Hawaiians and supporters to address the crisis and hold the US military accountable, it wasn’t until hundreds of military families living near Pearl Harbor reported symptoms of petroleum poisoning that Red Hill’s operations were paused in late November. But the root causes of the environmental and public health crisis remain untouched and the fight to shut down Red Hill is still very much ongoing. In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks about that fight with Mikey Inouye, an independent filmmaker born and raised in Hawai‘i, community organizer, and member of O‘ahu Water Protectors. The O‘ahu Water Protectors is an organization that formed out of a coalition of Kānaka Maoli organizers, Sierra Club members and supporters, Hawai‘i Peace and Justice, and other groups working toward sovereignty, decolonization, and demilitarization.
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Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post Production: Stephen Frank, Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us.
There’s a critically important story unfolding that could have a profound effect on the US military and the safety of our drinking water and our health and policy. It’s flying under the radar for most of us, unless you’re living on Oahu or anywhere on the Hawaiian islands. Hawaiians, and especially Indigenous Hawaiians, have been protesting outside of a military base on the grounds of the State Capitol because the military base on Red Hill on Oahu stores 200 million gallons of fuel oil buried just 100 feet above Oahu’s biggest aquifer. It has made military families sick and threatens the health and well-being of people who get their drinking water from that aquifer.
Now let’s take a step backwards. The struggle of the Hawaiian people has been going on for almost 125 years, since the US overthrew, in 1898, the Hawaiian government at the behest of Dole sugar so they could control plantations and seize power for their profit. Now, Hawaiian people have been fighting for their rights and their land ever since. Today, the United States military controls 22% of that island, answering to no one but themselves. Now, this particular battle, which also pits the Hawaiian state government against the political power and might of the US military, is going to be precedent setting, and will have an effect on all people fighting for clean water, the right to the land, leading a healthy life, and not to be dominated.
We are joined today by Mikey Inouye, who is an independent filmmaker born and raised in Hawaii, community organizer, and member of Oahu Water Protectors. Let me just describe. Oahu Water Protectors are an organization that formed out of a coalition of Kanaka Maoli organizers, Sierra Club members and supporters, Hawai’i Peace and Justice, and other groups working towards sovereignty, decolonization, and demilitarization.
Mikey, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Mikey Inouye: Thanks for having me, Marc. Good to be here.
Marc Steiner: It’s good to have you. Before we start, one thing I said in the beginning was that the coalition, the Oahu Water Keepers, was a coalition of Kanaka Maoli organizers. For those folks in our world who aren’t familiar with Hawaiians or what that means, what does that mean?
Mikey Inouye: Yeah, so Kanaka Maoli means Native Hawaiian, essentially native to this place, who have genealogical and ancestral ties to this place. It’s what defines what it means to be indigenous to Hawaii. I myself am not Kanaka Maoli, but I am a descendant of Asian settlers who strives to be in solidarity with the struggle for Hawaiian sovereignty, to deoccupy Hawaii, to demilitarize Hawaii, in the way that the United States has ever since they illegally overthrew the sovereign nation of Hawaii. A lot of those efforts tie into the water because there is a very long history that is longer than the occupation of the United States’s capitalist interests and militaristic interests – Which are all one – To exploit, divert, and ultimately despoil Hawaii’s water in the same way that they have done to every country where they plant their bloody flag.
Marc Steiner: I want to come back to what you just said about decolonization and what that means for you all in this movement, but let’s at least start with the battle in hand, the struggle in hand around Red Hill and the military base and what’s happening with poisoning the aquifer. Give us a little bit of history. As I said earlier, I think people will probably be shocked to hear that 22% of the island is controlled by the military to start with. Start there and tell us what exactly this battle is about and what’s going on.
Mikey Inouye: Yeah, so it’s interesting how people perceive Hawaii, particularly this kind of funhouse mirror version of it that’s depicted through the tourism industry of Waikiki, the very caricatured version of Hawaiian culture. This is explicitly marketed to tourists who are interested in having the militaristic experience as well. Part of that is concealing but also reinterpreting what it is to be an occupying nation in the sovereign nation of Hawaii.
A perfect characteristic example of this is the Pearl Harbor Memorial and the USS Arizona which was sunk during the Japanese invasion. It is a ship that was sunk by the Japanese empire when they bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. It is considered a tourist attraction but it is also leaking over the years, ever since 1941, thousands of gallons of fuel. Patriots from all over the continental United States, they come there to contemplate how freedom is not free. It kind of goes to show how US presence requires this type of very dark propaganda, that in order to justify their illegal presence here they have to consecrate the obscene.
A lot of that type of indoctrination goes hand in hand with the long history of the United States military painting a very distorted picture of what’s actually going on here. They have been poisoning the waters, not just in Kapukaki where the 20 Red Hill fuel tanks have sat ever since 1943 when they were completed and have leaked ever since, but also the waters of Puʻuloa, which many know to be Pearl Harbor.
The reason that it was called Pearl Harbor to begin with is because it was so momona, it was so plentiful with pearl oysters and fish. It was considered the breadbasket of the entire island. Now it is home to, at the very least, six superfund sites. They actually had to narrow it down from several dozen contaminated sites in Pearl Harbor because there were just too many types of contamination going on because of the military presence there. What was once one of the most plentiful, abundant, sustainable areas on the island is now one of the most contaminated sites on the planet.
Red Hill is kind of just part of the long story of the US military contaminating the very islands that they have taken over and become stewards that they were never asked to be. They have proven time and time again, not just with Red Hill but with their entire presence in Hawaii, to be the worst stewards of land and water.
Marc Steiner: I want to take us to Red Hill and what’s going on, because from what I’ve seen in the video you helped produce and what I’ve seen in the articles that I’ve been reading is that hundreds, at least hundreds, maybe in the thousands, I don’t know, but from what I’ve seen visually, hundreds of people are protesting these fuel oil tanks that are right above the aquifer that are leaking into the aquifer, that have made military families sick and made other people sick and threaten entire populations on the island itself. And the military seems to be just giving the middle finger to everybody, saying, we don’t have to deal with you. We don’t have to talk to you. I don’t care what you say. What’s going on on Red Hill at this moment? Tell us about that.
Mikey Inouye: There are a lot of organizations right now who are protesting and organizing around shutting down Red Hill, and that’s just for starters. There are much longer-term goals about expectations of what organizers and Kanaka Maoli advocates for their land and water are going to be asking for beyond just shutting down Red Hill, but that’s a conversation for another time.
This all began in 2014 when the first catastrophic leak that we know of happened, which was 27,000 gallons of jet fuel into the soil and groundwater. Just for a little background about Red Hill itself, the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is 20 tanks that can hold up to 12.5 million gallons of fuel each. All of them are corroding –
Marc Steiner: Each.
Mikey Inouye: Yes. All of them are leaking. The full capacity for all of the tanks combined is about 250 million gallons, but that’s actually not the current maximum capacity anymore because around the top of each dome is so corroded that they can’t even fill these tanks at the top anymore. But it’s also corroding from the bottom as well. When they investigated the tank that leaked in 2014 there were multiple holes in the lining of these single-walled tanks that were built 80 years ago in World War II. People have been protesting and advocating for the shutdown of Red Hill since then. These tanks the general public didn’t even know about until the ’90s when the information about their existence was declassified.
After the 2014 leaks there was a widespread public outcry but the response from our elected representatives and corporate interests ended up winning the day. So we are faced with a problem that many people were warning about long before it reached this level of crisis where thousands of people, many of them in military housing, many of them active-duty service members, have been poisoned by the water that the Navy provided to them. The people who claim to be the ones who are protecting Hawaii from foreign invasion and terrorism and all threats foreign and domestic, ended up poisoning the water that goes to 93,000 people on this island.
These tanks, they sit 100 feet above our sole-source aquifer, the Moanalua-Waimalu aquifer, that provides water to 450,000 people on this island at a minimum. That water is still under threat because there is still at least 180 million gallons of fuel in those tanks right now that are supposed to be removed based on the governor’s emergency order. They’re supposed to have a plan in place by Feb. 2 to come up with a way to take the fuel down from that hill –
Marc Steiner: Who they? The military?
The military. The US Navy is supposed to abide by this emergency order, which they were fighting right up until the point where it became politically unfeasible to do so. They recently said to the House Subcommittee on Military Readiness that they were complying, or that they planned to comply with this order.
But they have been fighting health officials, the Sierra Club, the local government, the governor’s office itself, the Department of Health, and the entire community on shutting down Red Hill and defueling the tanks. They are agreeing to come up with a plan to defuel the tanks, but they are still planning to make Red Hill operational again in the near future. That’s what we’re still currently fighting.
Marc Steiner: A number of questions. Let me start with the last thing you said. How do you know that the military is planning to do more and bring more fuel to that site?
Mikey Inouye: Oh, because at the Subcommittee Hearing on Readiness, the first to deal with the Red Hill crisis, the committee members themselves, but also Admiral Converse and other representatives in the Navy have insinuated that they plan to get Red Hill back online, that they plan to remediate and repair Red Hill. But the thing is, those tanks, as engineering consultant Norfleet said in the contested case hearing for the Department of Health contested case hearings, has stated that these tanks are in their end-of-life phase. Along a certain time horizon, there is a 100% chance that there will be a catastrophic failure.
A catastrophic failure will dwarf what we are going through right now. It would basically spell out the end of clean water and a way of life on Hawaii, or at least on Oahu, as we know it. They’re willing, in the interests of national security, to take that risk despite any type of costs that the people and this aina and wai may receive, because the costs are always external to the military.
Marc Steiner: Let’s stay where the struggle is now and where the battle is now. On the one hand, there have been these massive demonstrations, lions at the State Capitol that I’ve seen. I think it was in your documentary. People protesting outside the Red Hill military base where Native Hawaiians are actually leading the protests around them, making them very both political and very spiritual at the same time outside the base. You can describe that. But it also now involves, as you’ve been intimating, the state government, which is now battling the federal government of the United States and the US military. Describe as briefly as you can what that struggle is, where it is, and what you think is going to happen next.
Mikey Inouye: Yeah. The site of the struggle is on multiple fronts. One is legislative, but the other is in the streets, in communities. Kaʻohewai, it’s a coalition of exclusively Kanaka Maoli organizers and activists and Aloha ‘Aina, they went to the front gate of US Navy Pacific Command and they set up a koʻa, which is constructed out of rocks. It’s like an altar that is trying to, in times of need like drought or famine, to collect resources to a location that needs it. In this case –
Marc Steiner: That was in your documentary.
Mikey Inouye: Yes. What is needed is water, but also as Dr. Kalehua Krug in the video described, it is also a koʻa that is asking for international solidarity, which is something that the islands are receiving but not at the capacity that we need it to be. So that’s part of the reason why it’s great to have shows like this that are trying to put this into the national conversation and the international conversation because not enough people are talking about it, because it’s happening in paradise. It’s happening on islands in the Pacific. It’s so remote to people –
Marc Steiner: Nothing like that can happen in Hawaii. What are you talking about?
Mikey Inouye: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It’s so abstract, and it’s so geographically distant. But if this were happening anywhere else in the continental United States it would be running front page news almost every day.
Here’s the other thing. If literally anyone else was doing this besides the United States military we wouldn’t be talking about whether the US Navy would continue to have water permits or what their next steps would be. We would be discussing what types of crimes to charge them for in the international criminal court in The Hague.
Marc Steiner: So where we are now, it seems, from what I’ve seen and the articles I’ve been reading, this reached some intensity just December, last month, in the protests that were taking place outside the base. It’s continuing on in January. It’s continuing on in January as well with the Hawaiian government, especially in the state legislature, trying to stop the military from doing this. The military is playing games and they’re dancing around it, and it could take years and years if it’s just litigated to stop them, unless somehow politically you all in solidarity with other people around the country can stop them from doing what they’re doing. Is that about right?
Mikey Inouye: Yeah, that is precisely right. We need international solidarity but we also need to build people power that comes with organizing community and taking collective action on this. We are already kind of seeing the fruits of that labor. The reason that we were even able to get the Navy to where they are right now where they’re making these small concessions of doing the bare minimum of just claiming that they will be complying with the emergency order – Which the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro initially said was not an order but a request, even though it was explicitly described by the governor and by the Department of Health as an emergency order – We were able, through community public pressure, to get them to that point. In other ways, we have put political pressure on the fauxgressives who represent us in the House and Senate by –
Marc Steiner: Wait, what’d you call them? What’d you say?
Mikey Inouye: The fauxgressives. Fauxgressives. One particular example is Senator Brian Schatz who calls himself a climate hawk, and who, out of his 19,000-something tweets on his personal Twitter which has hundreds of thousands of followers, up until several weeks of public pressure that we put on him online, where he lives, on Twitter, he finally typed in the words Red Hill for the first time out of all of his tweets.
One thing about people like Brian Schatz and Senator Mazie Hirono is that they have received over time hundreds of thousands of dollars in their campaign contributions from private defense contractors like Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, you name it. If you can think of a private defense contractor, they have received a lot of donations from all of them, even so-called climate hawks. And people like Schatz who are on the Appropriations Committee have appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of funding projects that nobody but the military and the defense contractors want, so –
Marc Steiner: Does that mean at the moment that the work you’re doing and the protests taking place and the fact that people in the Hawaii state legislature especially are really pushing this hard politically, that it’s kind of forcing them into a position where they have to stand up to it?
Mikey Inouye: Absolutely. 100%. Yeah. People like Hirono and Schatz and Ed Case, they make big noise about being concerned about this issue, but organizers in Sierra Club and Kanaka Maoli organizers have been begging them to act on this ever since the 2014 leaks and before. They were summarily dismissed by these folks, or they were promised that decisive action would be done, and what we got instead were these mealymouthed statements and the expressed desire, which continues to this day from our elected representatives, to reform Red Hill, to repair Red Hill, when, again, it is terminal.
This is not a situation of something that can be repaired. This is something that you take offline. Even if they propose to double wall these tanks they’re still going to leak and they will still be sitting 100 feet above our sole-source aquifer that provides water to nearly half a million people on this island. There will still be a catastrophic leak. It’s much like trying to double mask a COVID patient who needs to be intubated. It’s going to put a band-aid over a bullet wound. It’s not going to fix the problem.
Marc Steiner: Interesting analogy.
Mikey Inouye: Yeah. Our public pressure and our organizing and our direct actions and our political education and our social media presences have pushed the window of the possible far to the left of what any of these bought-and-paid-for legislators and corporate interests and military profiteers would like it to be.
Marc Steiner: Let me conclude with this. I’m curious to go back to the beginning of our conversation just for a moment, when you talked about the decolonization of Hawaii and the demilitarizing of Hawaii. Again, for all of our mainland and international listeners who say, what? What do you mean? What does that mean? What does that mean?
Mikey Inouye: Essentially, what it means is that the military doesn’t keep us safe. The US police state doesn’t keep us safe. We keep us safe. The US military says that they need Red Hill to protect us from foreign threats from China, from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but we all know that to be transparently bullshit. China and Korea have not poisoned our water. They have not threatened our land and water. They have not invaded the sovereign nation of Hawaii. They have not stolen the land of the Kanaka Maoli people, who are the ancestral people of this place, who have for millennia taken care of this land and, pre-colonization made it 100% sustainable, whereas now we are completely dependent on imports.
That is essentially what decolonization and deoccupation would entail. Because the US military, they treat everything in the same way that every capitalist project does, as an externality. People are externalities. Labor power, water, land, everything is treated as an externality. To put a spin on Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quote about socialism, “eventually you run out of other people’s money,” which is, obviously, patently untrue. I would say that under capitalism and under imperialism eventually you run out of other people’s resources. That’s what’s happening right now. They’ve spoiled and contaminated so much land, water, and exploited and genocided so many people they’re getting to a point where the people are rising up and saying, enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore. Get out. Go home, wherever that home is.
Marc Steiner: Mikey, as we conclude, can you tell us where people can connect with this and follow it? Website?
Mikey Inouye: Yeah. There’s a lot of organizations you all should follow. Hawai’i Peace and Justice, fantastic. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Sierra Club of Hawaii, Kaʻohewai, and of course, Oahu Water Protectors. We are @oahuwaterprotectors on Instagram, and @oahuWP on Twitter. You can find a lot of updates, news, upcoming actions, and ways that, regardless of where you live, you can show up in solidarity in protection of our precious aquifer.
Marc Steiner: We’ll put those up on our site as well. Again, as I said at the very beginning of our conversation to everybody who’s watching and listening, is that this, to me, is a precedent-setting struggle happening in Hawaii that will affect all of us in the United States and across the globe as well. It’s one that we should pay attention to, one we’re going to continue to cover and hear what goes on, and one that we all should take note of and be aware of, because it’s coming to your doorstep next if it’s not already there. Mikey Inouye, thank you so much. Pleasure to have you with us.
Mikey Inouye: Mahalo. [Hawaiian].
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. It was good to have you with us. We’re going to stay on top of this story because I think it is a huge and important one. Please let me know what you think about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. You can just write to me at email@example.com and I’ll write you right back.
A reminder that Bill Fletcher Jr. and I will be producing a series here at The Real News called It Can Happen Here. It’s about the rise of the right and what we can do to stop it. For Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.