By Colonel (Ret) Ann Wright, World BEYOND War, October 16, 2023
Almost two years after the Navy’s massive jet fuel spill from the 80-year-old Red Hill underground fuel tank facility and one month before the October 16, 2023 defueling begins of the 104 million gallons remaining in 14 of the 20 massive fuel tanks, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has finally held 14 Navy officials “accountable” for the Red Hill disaster, but he did not fire, suspend, dock the pay or reduce the rank of any of the 14 for the toxic contamination of the drinking water of 93,000 and the pollution in the aquifer for the city of Honolulu!!!!
Instead, the 14 have received reprimand through Letters of Censure and Letters of Instruction (whatever that is)—and revocation of end of Red Hill tour medals.
As the Hawaii state newspaper Star Advertiser’s Editorial on October 3, 2023, stated, “Two years after fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility contaminated the drinking water of 93,000 Oahu residents, naval officers connected to the disaster are being held to account — finally, and just barely. In fact, the sanctions are so weak, and so late in coming, that the Navy can hardly expect the public to consider the matter closed.”
Hawai’i citizens have a long memory of lack of Navy concern on dangers of Red Hill underground fuel tanks
Hawai’i citizens have a long memory and Secretary of the Navy Del Toro has been in the doghouse with Hawaii citizens from the beginning of the November 20, 2021, toxic Red Hill fuel spill.
While Del Toro said in the Navy’s September 28, 2023 press release announcing the 14 officers receiving letters of censure and instruction, “Taking accountability is a step in restoring trust in our relationship with the community,” the spill “was not acceptable,” and the Navy will continue “to take every action to identify and remedy this issue,” it’s too little, too late for the health and public relations disaster the Navy caused to the community.
Here are some of the examples of the community’s concern about the Navy’s handling of the Red Hill disaster. In an attempt to undo the damage caused by Navy Captain Erik Spitzer who in November, 2021, initially said that testing done on the drinking water showed no traces of contamination, even going as far as telling families that he and his staff were drinking the water, Oahu residents remember that during a town hall meeting with affected military families on Sunday, December 5, 2021, Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday finally said the service “stumbled” initially in communicating with families, adding they would be more transparent and build a “water system that they can completely trust.”
Navy filed lawsuit to stop the closing of Red Hill tanks immediately after Del Toro visited the facility
They remember how a day later, on December 6, 2022, Del Toro toured the Red Hill tank facility, the same day the Hawai’i State Department of Health issued an Emergency Order for the Navy to cease operations of the Red Hill well.
They remember that two weeks later on December 20, 2021, the Navy under Del Toro’s leadership, made it clear that the Navy was not going to drain the Red Hill fuel tanks without a fight as it filed a lawsuit claiming the Hawaii Health Department lacked the power to shut down the Red Hill fuel operations.
Incredibly, in the lawsuit, the Navy argued that the fuel contamination had already occurred, so the state could not use it to justify the shutdown of the facility. The court filing stated: “There is no evidence in the record showing that Facility operations pose an inherent risk of causing harm, such that merely resuming operations would automatically give rise to ‘grave risk; jeopardy; danger’ that is ‘likely to occur at any moment.”
The Navy also objected to the Hawai’i state’s contention that the facility was “simply too old, too poorly designed, too difficult to maintain, too difficult to inspect, along with being too large to realistically prevent future releases.”
22 months later, the Navy has now spent over $280 million to make 253 repairs to the fuel tanks and pipe system to the level that the tanks can be safely defueled, a facility that the Navy had maintained was in excellent condition, despite two fuel spills in 2021.
Navy Insensitivity to the Health Problems Emerging from the Toxic Fuel Spill
Navy insensitivity to the human tragedy of the fuel spill started immediately after the toxic contamination began.
In December 2021, Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro notoriously said that fuel wasnʻt making people sick, it was the fuel in the water that was making people sick.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Balocki, the principal adviser to the secretary of the Navy and assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations was on Oahu from December 1 to 14. “I was intimately involved in the efforts every day,” he stated in the court hearing. Whether he thought the Red Hill situation constituted a crisis, Balocki said it may be “an urgent and compelling situation perhaps, not a crisis.”
“I’ve been in combat, so I know what crisis looks like,” he said. “This is a situation that can be remedied with the resources that have been brought to bear.”
Despite being at Pearl Harbor for two weeks during which numerous town hall meetings with affected families, when he was asked whether he was “aware that people have been sickened by this accident,” Balocki responded: “I’m not.”
Hawaii’s Congressman Kai Kahele, in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, said he found Balocki’s “comments, demeanor, and lack of awareness to be wholeheartedly inappropriate, further displaying a lack of candor and respect to affected servicemembers, their families, and the residents O‘ahu.”
6 Months Later in July 2022, Del Toro Too Busy to Meet with Military Families
Additionally, adding to the Hawai’i public’s mistrust of Del Toro, six months later when Del Toro came to Hawaii in July 2022 to observe the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the largest naval war exercise in the world, he did not meet with affected families or State officials.
Del Toro said Red Hill is not on the agenda for this trip and that there are no plans to meet any state officials.
“Right now I don’t have plans because I’m completely consumed with RIMPAC, but my staff and myself are working on these issues,” Del Toro said after returning from observing training maneuvers.
Video of 34 hours of Jet Fuel Spray Surfaces-the Navy Had the Video All Along
In one of the most egregious examples of why the community does not trust the Navy, it was also in July 2022, the same month that Del Toro visited Hawaii again, that a video surfaced showing the 34 hours of the spewing of the 20,200 gallons of jet fuel that flowed into the Red Hill drinking well. The Navy had maintained for 8 months that there was no video or photos of the fuel disaster.
Citizen Activists Detail the Navy’s Ten Lies about Red Hill Contamination
With all these examples of the Navy’s lack of concern, one year ago on October 8, 2022, dozens of citizen activists from Oahu Water Protectors, Sierra Club Hawaii, Hawaii Peace & Justice, and Shut Down Red Hill Coalition held an event called “Ten Navy Lies: One Year of Implausible Deniability; A Moment of Collective Mourning” on the grounds of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, very close to the entrance to the Headquarters of the Pacific Naval Fleet.
The Navy’s Ten Lies about the Red Hill fuel spill identified a year ago, some of which finally have been acknowledged by Secretary of the Navy Del Toro in his Letters of Censure and Letters of Instruction to the 14 Navy officers, are important to review to understand why the community is very wary of the Navy on Oahu:
LIE #10: “We are working aggressively to try to figure out what is in the water” (December 2021)
Admiral Tim Kott promised that the Navy was working to figure out what was in the tap water, making people and children sick, and killing their pets. But the Navy threw away all of their water samples, and we have to wait months for test results, if they even share them.
LIE #9: “There are no immediate indications that the water is not safe” (December 2021)
Navy Captain Erik Spitzer said that testing done on the drinking water had no traces of contamination, even going as far as telling families that he and his staff were drinking the water. Days later, however, Spitzer apologized profusely. The water was, in fact, poisoned. He could no longer deny it. Seven months later, video evidence showed a waterfall of jet fuel hemorrhaging from an overhead fire system drain line just a quarter mile uphill from the Navyʻs main drinking water shaft. Further investigation revealed that a worker had been hospitalized due to exposure to the fuel.
(Additional information: In July 2022, Military.com reported that Capt. Erik Spitzer, the commanding officer who led Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was awarded the Defense Department’s second-highest non-combat service award despite mistakenly telling residents to drink the tainted water. Receiving his award aboard the historic battleship USS Missouri, Spitzer was lauded for “his response to the Red Hill water contamination incident,” which “resulted in the expeditious restoration of clean water throughout the community,” according to the award’s citation.)
LIE #8: “Our priority is the safety and care of our families” (December 2021)
Not even a year later an EPA investigation exposed Admiral Tim Kott’s lie about Navy priorities. The EPA reported noncompliance with a laundry list of state and federal safe drinking water regulations, including geckos living in the water tanks and no written procedures or process of inspection of wells after spills.
LIE #7: “We have no evidence to suggest there’s ongoing acute exposure or symptoms related to the water distribution system” (March 2022)
If U.S. Pacific Fleet Surgeon Capt. Michael McGinnis would listen to the daily phone calls that the Navy call center receives or read affected families’ Facebook posts, he would see that many are still reporting rashes, nose bleeds and respiratory issues. He should also watch the webinar ‘Living A Nightmare: Current Impacts of Navy Jet Fuel Poisoning O’ahu Water.’
LIE #6: “I’m sorry that your family is sick…we are not trying to hide anything” (May 2022)
At the Fuel Tank Advisory Committee meeting this year, Captain Gordie Meyer and Rear Admiral Tim Kott denied knowledge of any ongoing health issues amongst affected families despite being confronted with photos and testimony to the contrary.
LIE #5: “We have not seen any medical encounters in the last month related to Navy water concerns” (July 2022)
At the same time Lydia Robertson, the Public Affairs Officer for the Navy Region Hawaiʻi said this, a mere few months ago, multiple reports of illnesses and water issues were made on Facebook by families drinking from the Navy water distribution lines.
LIE #4: “The Navy is committed to keeping the island’s ocean waters clean” (July 2021)
This lie, stated by Robertson again, was exposed by the EPA just last month after the agency fined the Department of Defense 8.7 million dollars for nearly 1,000 water act violations at the Pearl Harbor Wastewater Facility. Quite literally, the Navy is soiling sailor graves at the USS Arizona.
LIE #3: “The US Pacific Fleet is complying with the Department of Health’s Emergency Order on Red Hill” (January 2022)
Stated by Captain Bill Clinton, Director of Public Affairs and Outreach for the US Pacific Fleet, it was revealed later in that same month that the Navy would in fact appeal the emergency order.
LIE #2: “The military and the Hawaii National Guard rely on the fuel at Red Hill every day” (October 2019)
Just three years ago, Rear Admiral Robert Chadwick promised that Red Hill operations were essential to US national security and were needed on a daily basis. Yet, Red Hill has been shut down for nearly a year without any apparent impacts to military operations; according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a statement released this year:
“Centrally-located bulk fuel storage likely made sense in 1943, when Red Hill was built. And Red Hill has served our armed forces well for many decades. But it makes a lot less sense now” (March 2022)
LIE #1:“It’s not the fuel itself that is making people sick…It’s the fuel in the water that is making people sick” (December, 2021)
Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro said that fuel wasnʻt making people sick, it was the fuel in the water that was making people sick. No- water is life, fuel is poison.
Closing Remarks from the Event: Words do little to heal harms or keep us safe, and when words are nothing but lies, untruths, and implausible denials–as history and this last year has shown–people get hurt, human rights are violated, and the island is placed on the brink of existential disaster. We will not let history keep repeating, we will take action to prevent the legacy of Kapūkaki and Puʻuloa be permanently tarnished by Navy lies. Ola I Ka Wai!
Almost Two Years Later, “Accountability?”
On September 28, 2023, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued Letters of Censure to 3 retired Admirals:
Rear Admiral (retired). Peter Stamatopoulos, who was the commander of Naval Supply Systems Command during the May and November spills. Del Toro issued a letter of censure to Stamatopoulos for approving an investigation into the earlier May 6, 2021 fuel spill which was insufficient and did not include recommendations for “meaningful corrective actions…This inadequate investigation was the largest missed opportunity to properly identify the error in fuel accountability after the 6 May 2021 fuel spill…The failure to fully account for the fuel spilled in the 6 May 2021 incident was the primary source of the 20 November 2021 fuel spill.”
Rear Admiral (retired) John Korka, who was commander of the Navy Facilities Engineering Command Pacific three years before the two spills from May 2017 and September 2018, was censured for not ensuring that his command complied with requirement during the contracting and installation of the Aqueous Film Forming Foam system. His failed oversight of the AFFF system led to PVC piping the AFFF waste system, which was one of the causes of the 2021 fuel spill. The letter also identifies the November 2022 1,300 gallon AFFF spill which required a massive clean-up operation and further eroded public trust in the military.
Rear Admiral (retired) Timothy Kott, who was the commander of Navy Region Hawaii during the November spill was censured for “negligently failing to adequately deploy your environmental management team” during the November spill and that “despite the fact that fuel was actively spilling for approximately 34 hours,” he did not have his personnel assess the spill at the scene, which would have allowed them to identify the threat to the water much earlier. Kott was faulted for not immediately notifying the public when he shut down the Red Hill water well, “You had a duty to timely communicate that pertinent information to the public. … The delay in reporting negatively impacted the public trust and gave some members of the public the impression that the Navy was not transparent in their reporting.”
Del Toro also wrote Letters of Instruction to Rear Admiral VanderLey who was commander of NAVFAC Pacific during the November 2021 spill and Rear Admiral Chadwick who was the commander of Navy Region Hawaiʻi during the May 2021 spill, according to the Navy.
7 Unidentified Captains, one Commander and one Lieutenant Commander also reprimanded
The Navy issued Non-Punitive Letters of Censure to seven unidentified Navy captains, “three of whom are pending a Board of Inquiry to decide if they may continue their naval service,” as well as Letters of Instruction to one commander and one lieutenant commander.
In the spirit of Navy’s much talked about new “transparency,” the community finds that the Navy’s failure to identify the seven officers who had important roles in the disaster of the Red Hill fuel tanks is another reason the community lacks trust in the military.
“What happened was not acceptable and the Department of the Navy will continue to take every action to identify and remedy this issue,” said Secretary Del Toro. “I have determined that there were no leaders in relevant positions at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility worthy of an end of tour award over the period in question.”
Letters of Censure Are Small Consolation for Those Suffering from Toxic Contamination
The letters of censure and letters of instruction for the 14 Navy officers are small consolation to those who are still suffering from toxic contamination that never should have happened.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of military and civilian families is pending in U.S. District Court in Honolulu. The suit alleges the contaminated water caused seizures, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological issues, burns, rashes, lesions, thyroid abnormalities, migraines and neurobehavioral challenges that may last a lifetime.
About the Author: Ann Wright served 29 years in the US Army/Army Reserves and was a US diplomat for 16 years. She resigned from the US government in March 2003 in opposition to the US war on Iraq. She has lived in Honolulu for 23 years and is a member of Oahu Water Protectors, Hawaii Peace and Justice and Veterans For Peace-Chapter 113-Hawaii.