In November 2021, a fuel leak at the US Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, Oʻahu Island, contaminated the drinking water for 93,000 people; one year later, 4,900 liters of concentrated PFAS firefighting foam spilled at the same base.
Such accidents are sadly familiar to residents of Okinawa Prefecture where the drinking water for 450,000 residents has been contaminated with US military PFAS, and leaks of fuel – and other substances – have polluted rivers, sea, and land for decades.
Given these similarities, comparing how the US military has reacted to its contamination of the two islands can provide some important insights.
On one hand, in Hawaiʻi, the military held public meetings to discuss the contamination and high-level Pentagon officials visited there. Notably, last year, the Department of Defense announced the Red Hill facility would close by 2027; “This is the right thing to do,” stated Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin III. On the other hand, on Okinawa, there has been no such transparency or accountability. The US has held no public meetings and it refuses to talk to Okinawa Prefectural Government officials or answer media questions about PFAS contamination. Elevated levels of PFAS near Kadena Air Base and MCAS Futenma were first discovered in 2016 – but the military has not even granted Prefectural officials’ requests to test within the bases for the sources of contamination.
Superficially, then, the military’s actions in Hawaiʻi suggest it has been responsive to the community’s concerns. But closer examination – supported by this newspaper’s on-the-ground interviews – belies this illusion. Actually, the military’s reaction to its fuel and PFAS spills at Red Hill have been characterized by delays, cover-ups and a failure to provide care for those poisoned; moreover, many residents doubt the military will keep its promise to close the facility by 2027.
Such malfeasance poses some troubling questions for us in Japan. Here, much debate has revolved around how a revision of the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement to allow on-base checks would improve military environmental compliance. The Red Hill catastrophe suggests that while this might foster some degree of transparency, it would do little to improve the military’s deeply-entrenched culture of secrecy and aversion to civilian oversight. As Ernie Lau, the manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, told this newspaper, “We use the word shibai – the military pretend to be transparent but they are not.”
To truly solve the problem, then, what is needed would be an overhaul of the military mentality that justifies sacrificing the environment under the guide of protecting the nation. Environmental conservation and environmental justice must be centered at the heart of national security. If you destroy people’s water, land, and air, then what makes you any better than the enemies from which you purport to protect them?
Nowhere is such environmental protection more important than in the Pacific islands where the US is reinforcing its military presence – in Hawaiʻi, Okinawa, and Guam. Indigenous island residents understand the inextricable relationship between land, water, health, and identity better than anyone. As Oʻahu Water Protector, Dani Espiritu, told me in Honolulu, “For indigenous communities, this is the land where our ancestors are buried and there is no way we can leave that. Your health, family and very essence of life is tied to this place.”
As the Japanese government militarizes islands throughout the Nansei Shoto, it too, must keep environmental protection and environmental justice at the forefront of its plans.