Never-Before-Seen Video Of Navy’s Disastrous Red Hill Fuel Leak In Hawaii Raises Accountability Questions

navy fuel leak
Eric Tessmer, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Christina Jedra of the Hawaiian news outlet Civil Beat released exclusive photos and video of the November 20 fuel leak at the Navy Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. 

The fuel leak, we now know, lasted an incredible 34 hours and devastated the military families stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The fuel leak is the second-worst case of water contamination in military history and forced 4,000 military families to be relocated into hotels. 

Besides the inconvenience and expense to the Navy to relocate all those families into hotels, the most alarming impact is the over 6,000 individuals suffering illness from drinking water contaminated with jet fuel.

The recently released video and photos raise more questions on the Navy’s response or lack thereof, accountability measures, and more far-reaching effects on defense in the Pacific region.


A Disturbing Timeline Of Events

On November 29, the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam installation commander Navy Captain Erik Spitzer assured everyone that the water was safe to drink, stating:

“I can tell you at this point that there are no immediate indications that the water is not safe.”

The next day Captain Spitzer reiterated the claim that the water was safe even though the Hawaiian Department of Health warned that “All Navy water system users avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene.”

In response to the Department of Health announcement, the Navy sent out a press release on December 2 that petroleum levels in the water were “roughly four to ten times below the Hawaii Department of Health Environmental Action Levels.” This announcement was made to reassure the military community that the water was safe.

However, on December 6, Captain Spitzer sent a notice to the military housing residents that the Navy had “mistakenly felt the initial tests meant we may drink the water.” 

So 17 days passed from the time of the leak to the final announcement from the Navy that the water wasn’t safe. 

Unforeseen Consequences

Military members and their families started to experience various illnesses, including the following:

  • burning and itching skin
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • diarrhea
  • extreme abdominal pain

These illnesses were also experienced by many of the children of the military families stationed at the Joint Base. Many military families rely on the on-base child development centers, known as daycare centers, to watch after their children while working. 

Ford Island Child Development Center, which is the largest daycare center on the Hawaiian installation, had sent conflicting messages to families throughout the crisis. A release to the base population on measures to protect the children from contaminated water wasn’t sent out until December 21. 

Assistant scientist of environmental health and engineering at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Nataile Exum said of the contamination:

“I mean to be honest, will these parents ever know how this has impacted their kids and their immunological or developmental growth? I mean, I don’t think so.”

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Lack Of Accountability

The fuel leak in November is believed to have happened due to an earlier spill in May. During the May incident, 20,000 gallons of jet fuel got caught in the fire suppression system in the storage facility.

A Naval investigation uncovered that the issue was probably predestined due to an error in construction work in 2015. Steel pipe was meant to be put into the suppression system, but instead, PVC pipe was utilized, which is not as sturdy and would break down over time when in contact with fuel.

The same Navy report stated the following:

“The lack of critical thinking, intellectual rigor and self-assessment by key leaders at decisive moments exemplified a culture of complacency and demonstrated a lack of professionalism that is demanded by the high consequence nature of fuel operations.”

While a fair amount of individuals within the chain of command hold responsibility over operations on an installation, to use an old leadership term, the buck stops at the top. The report specifically spoke of Captain Spitzer’s actions, stating:

“He did not exercise his unique authority and that inaction contributed to contamination of the drinking water because the response was neither comprehensive nor effective.”

So what became of Captain Spitzer? He retired in June, receiving the second-highest non-combat service award you can receive; the Legion of Merit.

The citation lauded his “response to the Red Hill water contamination incident, which resulted in the expeditious restoration of clean water throughout the community.”

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National Security Consequences

The reality is warnings have been raised about the Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility for a long time. The Sierra Club estimates that over 180,000 gallons of fuel have spilled out into the environment and water supply over the entire lifespan of the tanks initially constructed during World War II.

If that wasn’t enough, the Navy has documentation highlighting the facility’s significant risk to the environment and surrounding community. For example, a Naval report indicated that every year there is a 28% chance of a substantial spill which equates to between 10,000 and 30,000 gallons of jet fuel.

The Pentagon has finally agreed to shut down the facility, which poses even more questions and concerns. In addition, the delay in dealing with this fuel infrastructure weakness poses a significant security concern.

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam is the heartbeat of U.S. military operations in the Pacific region. Fuel is the blood that must be pumped into the military machine to operate with maximum lethality and efficiency.

With it estimated to take over a year to empty the Red Hill tanks and no solid plan to reposition fuel assets in the region, there is a legitimate concern regarding our defensive posture. 

How Many More Warnings Will It Take?

Last month Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Air Force for Acquisitions Major General Cameron Holt warned that our procurement systems are far behind China and pose a significant threat to our security. 

“In purchasing power parity, they spend about one dollar to our 20 dollars to get to the same capability. We are going to lose if we can’t figure out how to drop the cost and increase the speed in our defense supply chains.”

With World War II-era infrastructures like the one on Oahu and spread throughout our international installations, we could quickly find ourselves not just technologically behind China when it comes to our weapons systems but not even able to put up a fight while we desperately try to plug holes in our aging infrastructure.

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As General Holt said:

“They have a larger Navy than we do, and they are making great strides in their military capabilities to keep us out of the Pacific region.”

We might take ourselves out of the Pacific region without China’s help at this rate.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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