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Kahele blasts Navy official for ‘offensive comments’ on tainted water issue

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele is blasting a Navy official for disrespecting military families and Oahu residents for saying Red Hill water issue not a crisis.
Published: Dec. 24, 2021 at 4:37 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 25, 2021 at 12:19 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele is blasting a high-ranking Navy official for disrespecting military families and Oahu residents by calling the tainted water issue at Red Hill not a crisis at all.

Deputy Assistant Navy Secretary James Balocki’s comments came Monday during a contested case hearing over the state’s order to the Navy to cease operations and drain fuel from the Red Hill storage tanks.

It’s been a month since more than 5,000 people were sickened by the fuel tainted water and 3,000 families were displaced. But, some Navy leaders continue to downplay the events.

“Do you consider the events at Red Hill to be a crisis,” asked Ella Foley Gannon, attorney for Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

“An urgent and compelling situation. Not a crisis,” said Balocki. “I would describe a crisis, as a compelling threat to human life. I’ve been in combat, so I know what crisis looks like.”

Those comments added fuel to the political outrage over the Navy’s tainted water from Red Hill bulk fuel storage tanks.

“I found it disrespectful. I found it insulting and offensive,” Kahele told Hawaii News Now.

In a letter sent to Balocki’s boss, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, Kahele demanded an apology for “insulting and offensive comments” that the events at Red Hill were “not a crisis.”

“I feel that Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Balocki deserves to give the people of Hawaii an apology,” said Kahele.

“In your view if the Navy had received reports on Nov. 28 that people were smelling fuel in their water, would there have been a problem if they had waited five days to actually tell people to stop drinking the water,” asked David Henkin, attorney for the Sierra Club, during the hearing.

“I’m not in the business of judging what is or isn’t appropriate with respect to notification,” said Balocki.

Kahele’s letter went on to say it appeared the deputy assistant secretary was “not aware that servicemembers and their families have fallen gravely ill from drinking water contaminated with petroleum.”

“The secretary has received the congressmen’s letter and will be responding privately,” said Capt. Jereal Dorsey, Special Assistant for Public Affairs, Secretary of the Navy, in an email response to Hawaii News Now.

Navy wife, Payton Lamb, lives at Radford housing. She says her 8-month-old baby boy, Keenan, got sick with congestion from the tainted water, her husband got headaches from the fuel smells and she went to the hospital.

“I had gone to Kapiolani ER a couple of weeks ago, I actually had a seizure and I was unable to speak,” said Lamb.

Hawaii News Now asked Lamb how she felt after Balocki’s comments.

“It really broke my heart to be honest. It felt like a slap in face,” she said.

Lamb’s attorney, Michael Green, says he expects to file a lawsuit against the Navy for at least 20 families including some time next week.

Meanwhile, the Navy has completed filtering and flushing its system water lines at the Pearl City Peninsula military housing. Water testing results are expected next week and then workers will move to flushing individual homes.

Flushing is also going on in Aliamanu Military Reservation, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, and Red Hill housing areas.

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