Following a leak of 4,900 liters of PFAS firefighting foam concentrate at the US Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Oʻahu Island, Hawaiʻi, in November 2022, Ernie Lau, the manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, started to demonstrate against the US military.
“I’m a government official but I cannot stay quiet. I decided to go out, hold signs and join protests. It is time to stand up in protection of our water resources – or else future generations will suffer,” Lau said in an interview with this newspaper at his Honolulu office in February.
Lau, whose job is to provide Oʻahu residents with safe drinking water, has held the post since 2012. During his service, there have been numerous problems at the Red Hill facility. In 2014, approximately 100,000 liters of jet fuel spilled at the base, then in November 2021, a leak of 72,000 liters of fuel contaminated the drinking water for 93,000 people. The facility sits 30 meters above the aquifer which provides drinking water to approximately one million people.
Lau said the PFAS spill in November 2022 was the final blow.
“That night, I couldn’t sleep. I could hear an audible cry of pain from our wai (Hawaiian for “water”) in that area, saying, ‘No more contamination.’ It is clean and pure – but it doesn’t have a voice.”
The following month, for the first time, Lau led more than 1,500 residents on a march, called the “Walk for Wai”, to protest the Navy’s spills of fuel and PFAS.
Accidents at the Red Hill facility have spurred many people to demand its immediate closure. After months of refusals, finally in March 2022, the Department of Defense agreed to defuel and permanently close the base; it estimates the removal of the fuel will be completed by summer 2024 and the facility will be closed in 2027.
“Here, the community came together, including Okinawans, and their voices have moved a mountain. They forced the military to take action. Okinawans in Okinawa need to speak out about PFAS contamination and not give up, either.”
According to Lau, residents of Hawaiʻi are becoming increasingly concerned about military PFAS usage in the state where the Department of Defense suspects there are approximately 17 contaminated sites, some located near Oʻahu’s aquifer.
In Hawaiʻi, Okinawan roots Shimanchu Wai Protectors demand military clean up water contamination
In response to the US Navy’s contamination of 93,000 Oʻahu residents’ drinking water with fuel in November 2021, Okinawan descendants in Hawaiʻi have been organizing to demand the military be held accountable. Led by third generation Kimie Toma Shiira, the 25-member strong Shimanchu Wai Protectors stage protests against the Navy, attend community meetings, and submit written testimonies to the US government calling for the immediate closure of the facility at Red Hill that caused the contamination.
“Oʻahu is our birth island, so we stand in solidarity with our native Hawaiian brothers and sisters to protect our water and land,” Toma Shiira told Okinawa Times in Honolulu in February.
Many residents are still suffering serious illnesses after drinking water contaminated by the 2021 spill.
Ann KamimuraReynoso is a third generation Okinawan-American, and a retired teacher. She joined Shimanchu Wai Protectors after witnessing the problems experienced by children in her classes. “These students came from the areas that had fuel coming from their faucets. When I heard about the ordeals they were going through, it hurt my heart. I knew I had to speak up for these families and especially the children,” she said Both Toma Shiira and KamimuraReynoso see similarities between the US military’s contamination of Hawaiʻi’s drinking water with fuel and PFAS contamination on Okinawa. “When I learned about the contamination on Okinawa, it made me cry – and it made me angry to see how people could treat other human beings with so much disrespect,” said KamimuraReynoso.
Both members said they would work as US citizens to inform other Americans about PFAS contamination in Okinawa Prefecture, such as writing to US elected officials and policymakers to resolve the problem.
“The Okinawan diaspora stand in solidarity with our ancestral homeland as they continue to fight for the basic security of clean water and a clean environment. We need to make the US military take responsibility for contaminating Okinawa’s nuchi nu miji. In Hawaiʻi, too, there is a saying – ‘Ola i ka wai’ – which means ‘Water is life’,” said Toma Shiira.
When Toma Shiira next travels to Okinawa, she plans to visit impacted areas and talk to community members to learn more about PFAS contamination. “The Shimanchu Wai Protectors stand in solidarity with Okinawa as we are aware about the similarities between US military environmental damage there and in Hawaiʻi.”
The Shimanchu Wai Protectors can be contacted in English or Japanese at Shimanchu808mamuyaa@outlook.com