Military says it’s seeking to right a wrong after initially downplaying Red Hill crisis

The military's response to the Red Hill tainted water crisis has generated complaints about communication and trust.
Published: Nov. 25, 2022 at 11:41 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 25, 2022 at 11:48 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Military leaders have done an about-face since the Navy’s Red Hill tanks leaked, contaminating its water supply a year ago and sickening thousands of people.

When the crisis began, military leaders issued denials and pushed back against calls to shut down the underground fuel facility.

Now, as they undertake efforts to defuel Red Hill, they’re trying to right a wrong.

Here’s a look back at the change in the military’s stance:

‘A huge problem’

During the early days of the tainted water crisis at Red Hill, Navy divers scrambled to suck out and skim as much spilled fuel as they could.

“We were up against a huge problem,” recalled Brian Semic, retired senior chief master diver.

But at the time, the highest levels of the military seemed to downplay the incident.

In late 2021, Secretary of the Navy Deputy Assistant James Balock, answered this way when asked whether the Red Hill spill was a crisis: “An urgent and compelling situation. Not a crisis.”


“I’ve been in combat so I know what crisis looks like,” he continued.

At the same time, he and other continued to fight efforts to shut down Red Hill

Also in this series:
‘Protect this wai’

Built underground in 1943 with 20 massive tanks, the Red Hill fuel facility was considered essential for U.S. strategic defenses in the Pacific.

But for years, critics described it as a ticking time bomb over Oahu’s water supply.

After the spill in November 2021, the state issued an emergency order to shut the tanks down. It took political will and community protests, the military to finally agree to drain the fuel.

“We will protect this wai,” said Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau, at the time.

Now, Rear Adm. John Wade is commander of the joint task force charged with emptying the tanks — all 104 million gallons of fuel that sit just 100 feet above the aquifer.

It’s a massive — and costly — effort.

“Water is critical and I hear the community loud and clear,” he told Hawaii News Now.

Wade is charged with overseeing the monumental effort to defuel the Red Hill fuel tanks.
‘Not a drop in the aquifer’

The Pentagon estimates emptying the facility will cost about $280 million.

Wade says the military learned from the leadership and procedural mistakes from the May and November 2021 fuel spills that tainted the Navy’s drinking water supply from Red Hill.

Some 93,000 water users on the Navy line now get their water from a different well.

The next task for military leaders: More than 250 repairs before the tanks can be drained.

“We need to move it out safely,” Wade said, “and not get a drop into the aquifer.”

As part of a special series, “Red Hill: One Year Later,” Hawaii News Now is taking an in-depth look at an environmental and public disaster whose impacts continue to be felt. See more coverage here.