The Human Cost Of Military Pollution In Hawai'i with Kai Kahele | Crooked Media
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December 15, 2021
What A Day
The Human Cost Of Military Pollution In Hawai'i with Kai Kahele

In This Episode

  • Tens of thousands of military families in O’ahu have been living without clean water for weeks after their water well was contaminated with petroleum. Many people got severely ill and some were even hospitalized for skin rashes, chemical burns, and vomiting. Hawai’i Congressman Kai Kahele joins us to discuss the gravity of the situation and how we got here.
  • And in headlines: the Senate voted to raise the debt ceiling, six women sued Tesla for sexual harassment in the workplace, and former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was ordered to forfeit the earnings from his book.


Show Notes:






Gideon Resnick: It is Wednesday, December 15th, I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: I am Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, where we are celebrating Steph Curry’s new record for three pointers by training to shatter it.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it is a long path that involves us being drafted into the NBA, but we think it’s a worthy goal.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know, I’ve accomplished all my goals so far, so I just need more things to work towards.


Gideon Resnick: Right. On today’s show Congress raises the debt ceiling again. Plus, New York State says that Andrew Cuomo has to hand over the royalties from his memoir.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first we turn to a story out of Hawaii that we’ve reported on before, where tens of thousands of families have been living without clean water in their homes for weeks. It all started late last month when residents who live on or near the Joint Navy Base at Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Oahu noticed a fuel-like smell coming from their taps. And it turned out that the water was contaminated with petroleum. Many people got severely ill. Some are even hospitalized for skin rashes and chemical burns and vomiting, all of which are symptoms consistent with petroleum contamination—not ever a word you want to hear about your water.


[clip of Mai Hall] My family and I, we got sick. My cats were vomiting. My son and I were nauseous. We got headaches. I had bloody stools. My husband had like, really bad stomach pains.


Josie Duffy Rice: Just truly awful. That was Mai Hall, an Native Hawaiian resident in military housing. She and her family get their water from the Red Hill well, which is connected to a site that the Navy manages. Which is also—you guessed it—a fuel storage facility. And she told us how this contaminated water affected her neighbors too:


[clip of Mai Hall] A lot of my friends took pictures of their kids with blistered, bloody lips. Somebody went to the E.R. for chemical burns inside their mouth. Somebody’s five-month pregnant wife went to the E.R. for uncontrollable vomiting, and somebody’s little infant was covered in a red rash from bathing in the water.


Gideon Resnick: That’s horrible. For how petroleum might have entered people’s drinking water, here is a timeline. So on November 22nd, 14,000 gallons of fuel and water leaked out from the facility, but at the time, military officials said water was safe to drink. Then, on November 28th, the Navy quietly shut down the Red Hill well after getting hundreds of complaints. And finally, on December 2nd, they publicly announced that there was a problem and that the water was contaminated and unsafe to drink. However, to this day, the Navy has not officially confirmed how fuel got into the water well.


Josie Duffy Rice: Well-known problems with Red Hill date as far back as 2014, when 27,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked from the facility. And local activists say that they’ve tried to flag issues with the facility for years. And this past week”.


[speaker addressing a crowd] It’s time for us to take the streets back, to take our land back, to take our water back, and get the U.S. military out of Hawaii! Permanently! Take your ‘opala and leave!


Josie Duffy Rice: So that was dozens of protesters calling on the Navy to permanently suspend its operations at Red Hill. On December 7th, the state’s Department of Health also ordered the Navy to shut down the facility, but the Navy has said it will contest this order at a court hearing tomorrow.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so there’s a lot that is going on here, and we wanted to learn more about the entire situation, so we have with us today Kai Kahele. He is the House Representative of Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.  He’s been very vocal on this issue. He also is on the House Armed Services Committee. Welcome to What A Day.


Kai Kahele: Aloha. Thanks for having me.


Josie Duffy Rice: We’ve heard a lot about problems with drinking water in other parts of the country, especially in places like Flint, Michigan. I think it’s worth noting that water is a particularly important part of Native Hawaiian culture. So as a Native Hawaiian, can you explain what significance it has to you personally?


Rep. Kai Kahele: You know, there’s a Olelo No’eau saying that says: [speaking in Hawaiian], which means man is Kane’s living water gourd. And basically, that means is that water is life, and Kane, or man, is the keeper of the water. In the Hawaiian language, wai is water and wai wai means values or means wealth. There is no coincidence that in our island community, both wealth and law were tied and defined by freshwater.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And so to that point, congressman, how did you learn about the navy-based water contamination at Red Hill? How did actually make you feel to hear it initially?


Rep. Kai Kahele: I was first contacted that there was an incident at Red Hill on Saturday night, November 20th. Although the Navy acknowledged that there was an incident that Saturday night, by Monday that incident was contained, we did not understand the gravity of that incident and what would occur over the next few days. I started receiving emails about November 28, 29 from hundreds of military families telling me their personal stories about how they were affected. Stories that when I read them, they bring me to tears because I think about those military families and how we failed them, how the United States military failed those families,


Gideon Resnick: A big concern that you’ve brought up and many others have, too, is that Red Hill’s fuel tanks are corroding, and just 100 feet above Honolulu’s most important aquifer. So if a fuel leak reached that aquifer, what would happen?


Rep. Kai Kahele: It would be catastrophic. Those tanks constitute the largest bulk fuel reserve for the United States military in the entire nation, let alone the Indo-Pacific, does sit a hundred feet above a federally-designated sole source aquifer that feeds the ground aquifers for the island of Oahu. It would contaminate it for generations.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Rep. Kai Kahele: And it would be irreversible or for hundreds of years.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Rep. Kai Kahele: That is non-negotiable. That cannot happen. The most important thing in this crisis right now—and we’re like three weeks now into this crisis—is that we take care of the people, both our military families that you talked about in your opening, the people of Hawaii and the residents of the island of Oahu that depend on this aquifer—about 700,000 residents. Everything from Honolulu Airport or Aloha Stadium—you know, where a lot of people are familiar, where a lot of the football games are played, the Pro Bowl is played there—from there, all the way to Hanauma Bay. So you’re talking all of Waikiki, the entire east side of the island Oahu, depends on that aquifer.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Josie Duffy Rice: So mind-blowing to hear the stakes like this. Because you’re on the House Armed Services Committee, you’ve been really vocal in taking the Navy to task over this. So let’s listen to a moment from your speech in committee last week where you brought a bottle of contaminated water from Oahu to question Navy Vice Admiral Rick Williamson about next steps.


[clip of Rep. Kai Kahele] And I can guarantee you Vice Admiral Williamson, if you smell this water that I allowed the Chairman to smell before this hearing started, you would know that something’s wrong with this water. And yet the Navy seems totally unprepared for the situation that has now impacted the military’s own service members and families. And what is happening on the ground in Hawaii right now is absolutely unacceptable.


Josie Duffy Rice: Ultimately, what do you want the Navy to do? What should they be doing at this moment to solve this problem?


Rep. Kai Kahele: You know, we have thousands of military families who are displaced from their homes, who are living in hotels in Waikiki, who have had to leave their homes and their Christmas trees and their presents and their decorations outside. You have health effects, some short-term, some long-term health effects—screening everyone, taking care of people that have been affected, ended up in the hospital, pregnant mothers that are worried sick—and rightfully so—that they consumed petroleum-contaminated water for almost an entire week, you know, while they’re carrying their unborn child. The other things about conducting a thorough investigation and holding people accountable. People should be fired for what is happening right now. People should lose their jobs and people should be relieved of command for what is happening right now with this crisis.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Rep. Kai Kahele: And then the next piece is, and probably the final piece which is the most difficult thing is, what is the long term solution for Red Hill? Is the complete decommission of the tanks and draining of the tanks one solution? You know, is there other alternatives that are available on the table? We don’t know what that answer is right now. We’re waiting for the Navy to provide us some of those answers, But they need to be able to have the full faith and confidence of the people of Hawaii that they are taking care of the people and their environment first.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Rep. Kai Kahele: And if they cannot do that, then the Red Hill tanks cannot and should not be there.


Josie Duffy Rice: You had mentioned in the same committee hearing that there have been warning signs of something like this happening, right? This didn’t come out of nowhere. There were three massive fuel leaks at Red Hill in the past few years. So do you believe that this was a preventable crisis?


Rep. Kai Kahele: It was 100% preventable. You know, incidents started happening in the early 2000s. And by 2014, the first incident happened with tank number five that leaked out about 27,000 gallons of fuel because of faulty contracting work done on the tank. The event that happened back in May was the result of operator error in the control room that didn’t properly transfer fuel, caused over-pressuring in one of the lines that caused that line to rupture. The incident that just happened on November 20th, that was the result of operator error. Those three incidents where human error, if we believe that that’s everything that has happened and that the Navy has been honest, transparent, and forthcoming in those incidents that have happened since 2014.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and I’m curious before we start to consider all of that, what actions have you taken to help families that are in need and what more are you planning to do? Congress is out of session and the military has said, you know, it can’t guarantee that displaced families will be able to return to their homes or have clean water until next year, which seems astonishing.


Rep. Kai Kahele: That’s what the army says. They’re saying that our army families, there’s about 1,700 or so families that are displaced from their homes, don’t plan to be back in your home before Christmas. And a matter of fact, we’ll be lucky if we can get you back in your homes by Valentine’s Day. And so that’s something that I think is really, really important that the Army and the Navy get on the same page, set realistic timelines and deadlines for our military families of when they can get back in their homes. And if you tell people what they can expect, then people can prepare. Long term, there’s no easy solution here. Until now, the Navy has not prioritized that in their budget. They have not prioritized it from the White House. It not been prioritized in the Office of Management and Budget. We need to see those priorities reflected in the Navy’s and the Department of Defense’s budget when it comes to Congress.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, well, Kai Kahele, the House representative of Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, we want to thank you so much again for taking so much time to join us today on What A Day.


Rep. Kai Kahele: Aloha. Thank you so much for having me.


Josie Duffy Rice: There’s a lot more about this situation that you can learn. We’ll put links in our show notes so you can read more and also take action to support the families affected by the crisis. And that is the latest for now.


Gideon Resnick: Now, let’s get to some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: The Senate voted to raise the debt ceiling yesterday, meaning we will not default on our debts. But to do that, the Senate had to change the rules for just this issue last week so the ceiling could be raised with a simple majority. That meant that only Democrats needed to vote yes on the measure instead of trying to wrangle 10 Republicans to get on board, which, as we know, is historically unlikely. That opened a can of worms though. Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, among others, said the Democrats should use the same strategy to pass laws that protect voting rights, which Republicans have continuously blocked. Here’s what he said on the Senate floor yesterday:


[clip of Sen. Raphael Warnock] I believe that we Democrats can figure out how to get this done, even if that requires a change in the rules. Which we established just last week, that we can do when the issue is important enough. Well, voting rights are important enough.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Election reform is one of the many issues on the Democrat’s to-do list before the end of the year, as is the $1.7 trillion dollar Build Back Better bill. But both hang in the hands of—drum roll—Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. And he says that he will not vote to change the Senate rules to pass voting reform and has yet to back the social safety net legislation as well.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know, I hope that when democracy is truly over, Joe Manchin will sleep fine at night knowing that he didn’t vote to change the most obvious rules on earth—


Gideon Resnick: Oh, he will.


Josie Duffy Rice: —on Earth that require changing. Good luck, Joe. Six women are suing Tesla, accusing the company of being complicit amid allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Each woman filed a separate suit yesterday, and they allege that their male counterparts were frequently inappropriate with them during their shifts: cat-calling them, making lewd comments, and touching them intimately without their consent. When the woman reported this behavior to human resources, they either never heard back or were just moved to a different workstation. Some women said that they didn’t even report the harassment they faced because it came from their supervisors. A similar lawsuit was filed last month by another female Tesla employee who said she faced harassment at the company’s location in Fremont, California. David Lowe, the attorney representing the women, said that sexual harassment is, quote, “pervasive throughout the workplace, and now we know it’s not just the factory floor in Fremont, but other locations.” Tesla has yet to comment about the allegations.


Gideon Resnick: Wow. A Belarussian court convicted political opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky to 18 years in prison yesterday. He was charged with organizing mass unrest and social hatred and is the latest rival of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to be sentenced. Back in 2020 Tikhanovsky attempted to run for president but was arrested before the election. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, stepped in to continue to lead the opposition movement. In an interview with the BBC, she said it was obvious why her husband was convicted.


[clip of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya] It’s personal revenge, but I believe that my husband is a strong person and he will not, of course for sure, spend all these years in jail.


Gideon Resnick: Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has repeatedly gone after many people who challenge him. According to one rights group in Belarus, his regime is currently holding 920 political prisoners.


Josie Duffy Rice: We have officially arrived at the final stage in the life cycle of Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic-themed book—we can only hope.


Gideon Resnick: Yaaaay.


Josie Duffy Rice: Although this one seems to have nine lives, so anything’s possible. This stage is complete and total erasure. The disgraced former governor of New York has been ordered to fork over the millions he pocketed from writing American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, which came out when the pandemic was still wearing its metaphorical virus onesie. Cuomo originally got the OK from the state to work on the book because he swore he didn’t use any state personnel or resources to write it. But yesterday, a New York ethics board said that he broke that promise and that he relied on administration officials and aides throughout the process. According to a report by investigators, one top aide created over 1,000 emails about the memoir last year. Cuomo was already paid over $3 million by Crown, his book’s publisher, and has 30 days to give that up to the state. Crown was also supposed to pay him an extra two million over the next couple of years, but it’s unclear if it will follow through. In response, Cuomo’s lawyer said the move by the ethics board was unconstitutional and will challenge the decision in court.


Gideon Resnick: Listen, I think that somehow the resolution here should involve Andrew having to add a chapter for all of the scandals that have happened since the book came out to the book, and he has to write the chapters himself and go through like the same, I’m sure, rigorous editing process that took place for the initial publishing of this. And that is how the punishment should be doled out.


Josie Duffy Rice: I am down with this plan, except I think there is one issue we have not covered, which is that it has to be edited by like, 10 members of the public before he can run. It can’t just be his book editor.


Gideon Resnick: Oh, Ok. OK.


Josie Duffy Rice: You got to make sure that like people who actually live in New York, maybe a couple of people who are like in nursing homes during COVID, should get to have a say in what he writes.


Gideon Resnick: A citizen review board—


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: —of the most affected constituents, I love it.


Josie Duffy Rice: I love it.


Gideon Resnick: Well, we wish him the best in his writing endeavors, and those are the headlines. We’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: It’s Wednesday WAD squad, and today we are doing a segment called The Solution, where we propose a fix to a news story that has created chaos in our world. Guiding us through it is our head writer, Jon Millstein.


Jon Millstein: Hey, John. Hey guys, thanks so much. Been in the lab on this one a long time and it’s really important that I get it out.


Gideon Resnick: We agree.


Josie Duffy Rice: I am excited and also terrified. So this week, Elon Musk received the greatest honor a magazine can bestow, Time’s Person of the Year. The founder and CEO of the electric car company Tesla, rocket ship company SpaceX, and the richest man on the planet. He got his new title on Monday. Time chose Musk because of his work quote, “Creating solutions to an existential crisis, for embodying the possibilities and perils of the age of tech titans, and for driving society’s most daring and disruptive transformations. Some progressives were critical of Time’s decision, given Musk’s history of union busting, tax avoidance, and ungodly wealth accumulation. Also, as we just mentioned a few minutes ago, the culture of sexism and harassment that has allegedly developed at his companies. Soon after the announcement, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that Musk should quote, “pay taxes and stop freeloading.” In a reply Musk addressed to Senator Karen—yes, he did call her Senator Karen—the tech mogul/bad internet comedian told Warren quote, “You remind me of when I was a kid and my friend’s angry mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason.”


Gideon Resnick: Sure, of course.


Josie Duffy Rice: I feel like she probably has a reason. Of course, this insult falls apart if you consider how hard it would be for any of us not to yell at a child version of Elon Musk. In defending Time’s selection, many have noted that the Person of the Year title implies less of a value judgment, more of a measure of an individual’s impact. Previous selections have included Hitler, Stalin and, yes, Donald Trump. Still, that explanation will not satisfy everyone. So for those who object to Elon Musk as Person of the year, here is Jon with the solution


Jon Millstein: The choice of Elon Musk for Person of the Year says more about our society’s need to obsessively rank and compare things than it does about anything else. Instead of getting mad about it, we should simply go outside, get some fresh air, and if we bump into Elon Musk, stage a highly-produced prank involving Christmas ghosts that makes him give away all his money or else go insane. Debating online whether Musk deserved this title may bring relief, but ultimately it will have no impact. What would have impact is stepping away from our computers, driving to the Halloween store, and buying a scary mask and or skeleton chest plate that lets us convince Elon Musk where supernatural being from his Christmas past, present, or future, we know how he’s going to die, and if he doesn’t atone for his greed, it’s all going to end really, really, really bad. Any discussion of Musk as Person of the Year really boils down to the question of what matters more, the opinions of some editors at Time magazine or the opinions of the people that we’re close to, our friends and our loved ones, whose help we will desperately need as we wrangle fog machines, pipe organs, loud and scary chains, and lots of other props that let us convince Elon Musk he has stepped into his own Christmas Carol nightmare and it won’t end until he publicly admits that his Mars plans are dumb and bad, and there’s actually pretty big problems happening here on Earth. The alternative, as I said before, is that our little immersive play is so good it turns Musk into a big babbling fool. By the way, only somewhat related, if we do get these great skeleton costumes, we should still use them to do a limited number of scares on the Time magazine editors that made this decision. Those costumes are expensive, and it just makes economic sense.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I did have one quibble and it was using it only once, and you solved that as well.


Josie Duffy Rice: Honestly, Jon, I think we could go even further. I can list 50 people right now that we could, you know, every year we just, we appear. We are the ghost.


Jon Millstein: We need to have a theater company that creates a little play for Elon Musk, for every day, for the rest of his life.


Josie Duffy Rice: That would be God’s work, honestly.


Gideon Resnick: It would be God’s work, and it would also be WAD’s work, you could say.


Josie Duffy Rice: True.


Jon Millstein: WAD’s plan.


Josie Duffy Rice: True.


Gideon Resnick: WAD’s plan. That’s where we’re going to end it. That was the solution.


Josie Duffy Rice: One more thing before we go. Do you have strong opinions about What A Day to go with that strong cup of coffee in your hand? Well, now’s your chance to let us know. Leave us a review and tell us what you want to hear. We really appreciate the feedback and can’t wait to read what you submit. Five stars, please. And if you don’t give us five stars, we may hunt you with our new costumes and fog machines.


Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, find us @whataday on Instagram, and tell your friends listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just books with ethically and ambiguous development histories like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And stay alert Elon Musk.


Josie Duffy Rice: I am very scary.


Gideon Resnick: If you see a fog rolling in, you know what the fuck is about to happen, buddy. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.