Following 14,000-gallon fuel spill, Pacific representatives call for U.N. investigation

Indigenous youth caucus calls for demilitarization of Hawai‘i.


This story is published as part of the Global Indigenous Affairs Desk, an Indigenous-led collaboration between Grist, Indian Country Today and High Country News.

The Global Indigenous Youth Caucus on Thursday demanded that the United Nations send investigators to Hawai‘i to probe the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a series of World War II-era reserve tanks which have leaked at least 14,000 gallons of fuel-laced water into Honolulu’s groundwater aquifer. The Caucus also urged the U.N. to re-inscribe Hawai‘i on the list of non-self governing territories – a move that would classify Hawai‘i as a colonized territory alongside Guam, the Falkland Islands, Western Sahara and 14 others. 

“We are supposed to have access to water for our ceremony, for clean drinking water,” said Makanalani Malia Gomes, a Pacific representative of the Caucus. “When we ensure Indigenous peoples rights, we ensure the rights of all people of Hawai‘i, it’s a human right.”

Makanalani Malia Gomes, a Pacific representative of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, speaks at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Tristan Ahtone / Grist

The remarks come as Native Hawaiians demand the U.S. Navy take action at Red Hill after the discovery of the fuel leak last November forced the closure of water wells which serve nearly half-a-million residents on the island. Coupled with ongoing drought, Hawai‘i’s Board of Water has asked residents to reduce water use by 10%.

“When we ensure Indigenous peoples rights, we ensure the rights of all people of Hawai‘i.”

In December 2021, the Hawai‘i Department of Health ordered the U.S. Navy to drain the facility, but the Navy filed legal appeals to fight the order. Last month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that the facility would be closed, but to date, no timeline for the closure has been offered. Earlier this month, the Navy dropped its lawsuit against the Department of Health. 

The Navy was unable to provide a timeline or comment at publication.

Geoffrey Roth, Standing Rock Sioux descendant and a member of the Permanent Forum, says United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII),  leaders will evaluate the Youth Caucus’ request for a final report to be presented to the United Nations main body for action. “We work to form the actual recommendations that go into the report,” he said. “I’d like to look at it more and maybe sit down and talk to them as well.”

According to the United Nations, at its founding, nearly a third of the world’s population lived in colonized territories. In 1990, the U.N. proclaimed the International Decade of the Eradication of Colonialism. Beginning in 2021, the General Assembly declared 2021-2030 the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. “Inscribe us back on the list so that we can become self-determining,” said Gomes.

In January 1893, U.S. troops invaded the Kingdom of Hawai'i, deposing Queen Lili'uokalani. Prior to invasion, the Kingdom had established diplomatic agreements with the United States and maintained nearly 100 consulates and legations around the world. In December 1893, U.S. President Grover Cleveland acknowledged that Marines had illegally invaded the Kingdom, but did not withdraw troops. In 1959, both Hawai‘i and Alaska were removed from the U.N.’s list of non-self governing territories when they were granted statehood. While UNPFII leaders continue their dialogue with the Youth Caucus to finalize a report for the U.N.’s main body, Gomes offered a clear-eyed vision for their desired outcome.

“The United States’ military needs to be out of all of the Pacific,” said Gomes. “Hawai‘i and the entire Pacific should be demilitarized immediately.”

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and an editor at large at Grist. Formerly, he was an associate editor of the High Country News Indigenous affairs desk

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