HSTA testifies for a bill that would help prevent future water contamination

The state House Committee of Consumer Protection & Commerce voted to move forward with a bill Thursday that would prohibit the issuance or renewal of permits for large capacity underground fuel storage tanks near sources of underground drinking water in Hawaii.

House Bill 2274 D1 reads, in part, “The legislature finds that fresh water and streams have been among the most important natural resources to Hawaii’s people. Dating back to ancient Hawaii, the sanctity of fresh water, or wai, is reflected in the way water permeates throughout olelo Hawaii, the Hawaiian spoken language…In Native Hawaiian culture, to have water is to have wealth.”

In December 2021, the U.S. Navy confirmed that its Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility on Oahu leaked petroleum into the Navy’s water system, contaminating the drinking water for some 93,000 people, including students and teachers at seven Hawaii public schools.

During Thursday’s hearing, HSTA’s Government Relations Specialist Mitzie Higa testified in support of the bill and said, “The last two years have already been hard on our teachers, our students, our families, and our community, and this Red Hill catastrophe has just made it worse.”

“We ask for your support whatever you have to do, we need to shut down Red Hill,” Higa continued. “We need to not allow these tanks any longer to be underground and over aquifers.”

In his written testimony, HSTA President Osa Tui, Jr. said, “To provide safe water to not only our keiki, teachers, public schools, but also to everyone who lives in Hawaiʻi, the Hawaii State Teachers Association asks your committee to support this bill. Water is life.”

House Bill 2274 D1, in its current form, would prohibit the operation of and renewal of permits for underground fuel storage tanks with capacities of 100,000 gallons or more beginning Jan. 1, 2045. Red Hill has a storage capacity of 250 million gallons and is the largest underground fuel storage facility in the United States.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply raised concerns about the bill’s proposed date of 2045, and Ernie Lau, the water board’s manager and chief engineer said, “The date is not really acceptable. An existing and large facility that already is in place that has leaked would then be about 102 years old at that time…That is not right.”

Rep. David Tarnas (D, North Kona, North Kohala, South Kohala) expressed reservations about the bill’s language as well, saying that the proposed date should be sooner than 2045.

House Committee of Consumer Protection & Commerce Chair Aaron Johanson (D, Moanalua, Red Hill) moved to approve the bill in the vein of keeping it alive, but also said, “I certainly acknowledge the Board of Water Supply’s concern that the time horizon is too long. And I don’t necessarily know that 2045 is an ideal date. So the date could change, but I would like the keep the vehicle alive.”

The bill will next be heard on the House floor and voted on before crossing over to the Senate for hearings in their committees. The bills are subject to amendment and change and the final outcome will not be clear unless and until lawmakers pass the bill in some form and it becomes law with or without the governor’s signature.

Public pressure mounts to defuel aging Navy fuel tanks

The HSTA, local, and federal leaders are banding together to call for the defueling and closure of Red Hill’s fuel tanks.

Last month, The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a proposal calling for the Navy to empty and close its Red Hill fuel tanks. HSTA held a virtual forum on Jan. 24 during which teachers from affected schools joined officials from the Board of Water Supply and the Sierra Club of Hawaii to speak about the ongoing crisis.

The Hawaii Board of Education introduced a proposal at its meeting last Thursday to urge all parties involved in the water contamination crisis to work together to find an effective and expeditious solution. However, after several board members, HSTA and other testifiers called for the board to draft stronger language and include a promise for action, a new proposal will be drafted ahead of next Thursday’s meeting.

On Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed Bill 48, requiring fuel storage operators to obtain a Hawaii State Department of Health permit to store regulated substances of 100,000 gallons or more. It would apply to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, which regularly holds 180 million gallons of fuel. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he plans on signing the bill.

President Joe Biden signed a bill into law last week that includes $100 million to empty the Navy’s Red Hill fuel tanks. Sen. Brian Schatz (D, Hawaii) authored the measure, and it also directs the Department of Defence to comply with the state emergency publish health order. The $100 million is part of the legislation that includes $400 million for the Red Hill water contamination crisis.

Multiple investigations of the Red Hill fuel storage facility are happening at the local, state, and federal levels, and U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele (D, Hawaii) said “There are multiple ways for us to address this problem and shut down this facility. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”