Activists deliver water to residents affected by Red Hill

Nov. 20—The mutual aid effort began Christmas Day when community members rallied together to deliver water, toys and other goods to Kapilina residents affected by the Red Hill crisis.

Community members and activists with Shut Down Red Hill Mutual Aid gave out clean water to residents at the entrance to Kapilina Beach Homes Saturday. For nearly a year, they have been gathering on weekends to hand out water at communities affected by contamination of the Navy's water system a year ago by fuel from its underground Red Hill storage tanks.

The mutual aid effort began Christmas Day when community members rallied together to deliver water, toys and other goods to Kapilina residents affected by the Red Hill crisis. Those who live in the former military housing area were initially told by the property manager that they weren't on the Navy's system, but people were still getting sick.

The Navy has since acknowledged the homes in Kapilina are on its water system, which serves approximately 93, 000 people. In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the permanent defueling and shutdown of the Red Hill storage tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Honolulu relies on for its drinking water. The military currently hopes to complete the process by summer 2024.

"Red Hill is an existential crisis, it's one of the biggest threats that we face, " said Hanaloa Helela, a Native Hawaiian activist and one of the aid organizers who was handing out water and directing volunteers Saturday. "With 104 million gallons still in the tanks, it's pretty serious."

Helela comes from a military family. He was born in Georgia and grew up on military bases before doing a brief stint in the Air Force and returning to his ancestral home to start a new life. For him, seeing the fuel contamination from Red Hill threaten both the island's aquifer and affect the health of civilian and military families has been deeply personal.

Shut Down Red Hill Mutual Aid has done water giveaways at Pearl City Peninsula housing, Halsey Terrace and other communities made up largely of military families. But organizers said there is a special responsibility to the residents of Kapilina.

"At first the Navy tried to act like because they were civilians, they weren't their kuleana, " said Helela.

Both state Department of Health and Navy officials have since said the water system was successfully flushed and is now providing water that is safe to drink. But many of those on the Navy's water system remain skeptical so long as the same pipes that were contaminated remain in place with no plans to replace them.

"I don't even cook with it or drink it now, " said Jennifer Boven, 33, a five-year resident of Kapilina.

"I have an anxiety around it because it's like, how do you trust that now ?"

She said that no one from the Navy or Kapilina's management company ever reached out to tell her she was on the Navy water system. She instead found out from Facebook posts by other residents. A mother of three, Boven said her youngest daughter, age 5, was exhibiting mysterious rashes and skin irritation.

"The doctor kept saying, 'Oh, just give her more baths, ' and it wasn't going away, " she said. "I saw some other lady had the same thing with her kids and I was like, 'Oh my God, that's what it was, it was the water.'"

Mikey Inouye, a local filmmaker and mutual aid organizer, said that while the effort is an informal grassroots affair, it has received support from the Sierra Club, Faith Action for Community Equity, the Oahu Intertribal Council and other organizations.

One of the volunteers at Saturday's event was Xavier Bonilla, a former Kapilina resident who helped coordinate the first water distribution event last Christmas. He said the military was giving out water to residents at the time but that it wasn't meeting the needs of the local families at Kapilina, which includes multigenerational households.

"Most of the people here have big families, " said Bonilla. "At first, it started off with one case of water per household. And then it went up to two and that was maxed out, and to us it's not enough. Not only do we need water to drink but we also needed it to shower because there was no way we were gonna touch that water."

Bonilla said that in early December he rushed his teenage son to an emergency room when his throat became swollen, his eyes were red and his gums were bleeding after showering and brushing his teeth. Bonilla said the doctor determined it was a toxic reaction.

"My son almost died from taking a shower, " Bonilla said. "It's hard to talk about it still to this day."

Bonilla moved to California after deciding he couldn't trust state or military officials and couldn't find another place to live that he could afford. He said it took months for his family to "detox " from the fuel they ingested and to feel healthy again. He returned to Hawaii for his granddaughter's birthday and decided to join the volunteers with the water handout.

"Even the first day that I got here it was like PTSD, " he said. "Like I started checking the water, I had to check the coffee."

KAPILINA RESIDENT China Cunningham recently moved to the community from the Army's Red Hill housing area. She began experiencing digestive tract problems after the contamination a year ago. Her mother, who was visiting for the holidays, also got sick from the water. She said no one told her before she moved that Kapilina is also connected to the Navy's water system.

Cunningham, a military spouse and veteran who served four years as an Army mechanic, said she continues to exhibit symptoms that she feels are getting worse. She's been frustrated by the military's response in addressing the health effects on its troops and dependents, but especially the apparent lack of attention on civilian residents who are also coping with the effects.

Not every household has reported noticeable side effects from the water contamination, and some homes on the Navy system never tested positive for contamination. Lausei Taua, 28, has been a resident of Kapilina for five years and said no one in her family has experienced any symptoms to date. But she's concerned about the lack of information she's received, as well as the possibility that fuel exposure could lead to ailments later in life.

"When this first occurred, I felt like I have really had to go to Google to understand the severity of the situation, " she said. "I'm not trying to sue anybody, I just want to know : For the sake of my health and my family's health, what can I expect ? That's all I want to know."

This month the military removed 1 million gallons of fuel from the 3.5 miles of pipelines that connect the Red Hill tanks to fueling facilities at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Military officials say it is a first step to allow for repairs to the aging World War II-era facility to make it safe enough to remove the remaining fuel reserves.