On a nearly 24-hour trip from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., an advocate and organizer named Keoni DeFranco — along with three other members of a group known as the "Oahu Water Protectors" — came to Capitol Hill and protested in front of the White House to call attention to its water issue.
It's a crisis stemming from the Navy’s Red Hill underground fuel storage facility on the island of Oahu. Since their first rally in front of the White House on Monday, he feels they’ve already made headway in getting their message across.
“We were organizing with some of the local colleges, and around 3:30 p.m., they cleared Lafayette Park — President Joe Biden walked out and so we're actually close enough to be in ear range from him, made our demands heard," Keoni DeFranco and organizer for O’ahu Water Protectors told Spectrum News.
Spectrum News exclusively spoke with members of this community who traveled from Hawaii to the White House and to Capitol Hill in the hopes of raising awareness of water contamination issues linked to a naval facility near Pearl Harbor.
The Navy has previously admitted that its WWII-era fuel tanks at Red Hill were linked to a 14,000-gallon jet fuel spill late last year that contaminated the drinking water of nearly 90,000 people living and working at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam.
“The facility was shut down in December, only after over 1,000 people went to the hospital over Thanksgiving weekend,” DeFranco said.
While there were reportedly hundreds of people who went to the hospital that weekend, no official number has been given because of HIPAA rules. According to a Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry health assessment survey of people affected by the water contamination that was conducted in January and February of 2022, 37% of the 2,289 respondents sought medical care.
Among those impacted were Ariana Wyatt and her then 3-year-old daughter Indy, who told Spectrum News that they had to be hospitalized after bathing and drinking the contaminated water before being told it was tainted. Wyatt also made the trip to Washington this week and participated in a rally outside the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday.
“At the very tender age of three, her thyroid number was the highest they have ever seen," Wyatt said. "At 98, with an adult high of five. So we began treatment, and it has been, it's almost been a year."
The EPA said in a statement that it “strongly supports the demonstrators’ first amendment right to speech and peaceful assembly," adding that the “EPA has spearheaded discussions with the Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Navy regarding an enforcement framework to ensure that Red Hill is defueled and closed in an environmentally protective manner."
Wyatt and two other military spouses also took their case to Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, meeting directly with the Democratic lawmaker.
“I’m truly grateful that she sat down with affected family members and heard our stories today,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt and members of the Oahu water protectors have set up several meetings with members of the state’s congressional delegation which has helped secure more than $1.1 billion to shut down Red Hill.
The Navy also spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the spill and has relocated families, providing them with clean water and removing the fuel from the water supply.
Advocates say their response since the leak hasn’t met their expectations.
What we want is for it to be done faster than what they're doing, but we want it done safely.
“What we want here is for the fastest possible defueling, to decommission of this facility,” DeFranco said.
The group that traveled from Hawaii to Washington also feels like they’ve made some headway in their advocacy. For instance, on Monday, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy announced they'd selected U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Wade to be the Commander of the Joint Task Force on Red Hill.
The commander’s sole responsibility will be to ensure the Department safely and expeditiously defuels Red Hill.
The EPA says it will continue its "robust efforts to engage with all stakeholders, especially those in underserved and overburdened communities." The agency says it wants to ensure they are following the best available science, following the law and placing the lived experiences of these communities at the forefront of Agency decision-making.
Angi Gonzalez provides political news coverage from the Spectrum News Washington, D.C. bureau on issues and lawmakers from Hawaii.