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People Affected by Toxic Fuel Leak in Hawaii Now Face Taxes on Emergency Aid

Adding insult to injury, some residents are receiving tax bills for aid sent after the Navy contaminated their water.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shannon Bencs walks a portion of the seven miles of tunnels at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility in Honolulu, Hawaii, on July 17, 2020.

It’s been nearly 16 months since 14,000 gallons of fuel and water leaked from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Honolulu, Hawaii. Located merely 100 feet above the Southern O’ahu Basal Aquifer, the military fuel storage facility’s leaking drain line poisoned the main fresh water source for 100,000 people, causing oral chemical burns, stomach pain, sore throats, rashes, headaches and vomiting, among other illnesses for residents relying on that water. More than 93,000 residents were affected, and 3,500 families were forcibly displaced, with many staying in Waikiki hotels for months on end as the Navy began cleanup early last year.

Although the Department of Defense provided temporary housing and emergency assistance to those impacted by its negligence, it didn’t come without a price. In fact, for some, the funding they received for temporary housing is considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service, with recipients quite literally paying the U.S. government back for the funds they received.

Civilians and locals living on the Navy’s water system are being disproportionately impacted by these taxes, according to Jamie Williams, a former resident of the Red Hill Mauka Army housing. Williams told Truthout that in places like Kapilina (a civilian housing site located near Pearl Harbor), communities needed to mobilize just for the Navy to consider giving them the emergency assistance they now need to pay for. “Compared to active military families like mine, the Navy initially had no intention of giving [locals] temporary housing or clean water. It took weeks and a lot of agitation to get the military to treat non-military residents affected by their mess. And now to add insult to injury, [locals] are receiving tax bills where they weren’t being helped in the first place,” Williams told Truthout.

Meanwhile, Kat McClanahan, a resident impacted by the Red Hill leak, told Hawaii News Now, “We are not even done paying our medical bills and now we are going to start [being] taxed on something that was forced on us by the Navy’s mistake.” Despite being granted $23,000 to cover her medical and relocation expenses, her 1099 tax form is considering those funds as extra income, meaning she will owe an estimated $3,400 back in taxes.

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii stresses that she will push the Defense Department and the IRS to ensure no one is forced to pay taxes on relief payments. Meanwhile, a delegation of Hawaiian senators and federal representatives recently wrote a detailed letter to Acting Commissioner Douglas O’Donnell demanding that the IRS exempt emergency assistance from taxation under the Stafford Act. This, they emphasized, would ensure that impacted families do not take on additional burdens caused by the Navy’s own negligence:

This assistance was a necessary emergency response to a crisis caused by the Department of Defense…. Just as assistance provided to individuals by the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Stafford Act is exempted under Section 139 of the Internal Revenue Code, we believe the Red Hill emergency assistance should also be exempted. Individuals dislocated by Red Hill should not have to take on additional tax burdens because of the emergency assistance provided to them in a time of great need due to a crisis caused by the federal government.

For years, Hawaiian activists and grassroots organizers have called for the World War II-era facility to be shut down in order to avoid more crises like this one — and they are not letting up. Just last week, Oahu Water Protectors released a statement via Twitter demanding that Red Hill tanks be classified as non-essential to ensure the facility is unable to be reused again. They also demanded that the military begin testing soil and water for “forever chemicals,” known as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) which, according to Hawaiian grassroots organizer Hanaloa Helela, continue to threaten the livelihood of residents even after pipes have been flushed.

“So many folks are still complaining about symptoms because of the residual fuel that’s clinging to various places within the water system,” Hanaloa told Truthout. “This is not just about contaminated water; it’s about contaminated pipes and wells.”

Hanaloa, who is heavily involved with Red Hill’s mutual aid efforts, said community organizing has been essential in providing much-needed resources and help to families where the government does not. “We have water distributions twice a month,” Hanaloa said. “We’ve built the Ko’a (a shrine dedicated to help restoring life and health to Kapūkakī).”

Amid this community organizing, Hanaloa is a member of Wai Ola Alliance, the coalition of residents, legal counsel, and grassroots organizations filing a citizen’s lawsuit against the U.S Navy for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. “We want to have the area cleaned up, refueled, decommissioned — we want full remediation, financial accountability, and to establish a court ordered community oversight committee,” Hanaloa said. Through this, the Alliance hopes that they could work with the court to make public important information the Navy may be concealing as a way to hold the Navy accountable. “If this doesn’t work,” Hanaloa said, “then we go to litigation. We keep going.”

Williams mirrors this same sense of urgency — “Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) have been organizing around this for 10 plus years — nobody will stop. Because until this facility is fully defueled and decommissioned, no one is safe.”

In fact, this is the third known time that the Red Hill facility has poisoned the island’s waters, with 27,000 gallons of fuel having leaked as early as 2014 and then another 19,000 gallons in May 2021. The Navy estimates that since its construction in 1943, the facility has leaked more than 1.2 million gallons of fuel into Honolulu’s waters.

Despite knowledge of the facility’s instability, the Navy refused to respond to calls to regulate the faulty tanks, even after the major leak in November 2021. Only after receiving almost 500 complaints did the Navy authorize evacuation and grant temporary housing to affected residents, while simultaneously deflecting criticism at public hearings and resisting efforts to close the facility. Public pressure from a coalition of about 70 different organizations catalyzed the current defueling plan as well as the emergency assistance granted to affected families in the first place.

Hawaii, which has been targeted as a playground for U.S. settler-colonial exploits since its illegal occupation in the 19th century, remains one of the most heavily militarized places on Earth. With 57 known military sites on the island of Moku o Keawe alone, the military is responsible for the environmental degradation of the land in more ways than just Red Hill. In fact, this fervent militarism litters the islands with contaminated sites like Red Hill as well as dumped bombs and nuclear waste sites.

Native Hawaiians have long borne the burden of U.S. imperialism, witnessing this pollution becoming its own kind of occupation each day, taking up space on their land and extending its poisonous hand into Hawaiian waters. That the U.S. government is now taxing emergency aid underscores yet again the non-consensual and exploitative relationship that the U.S. military maintains over Hawaiian lands.

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