BWS Chief Engineer and Manager Talks About Life Leading to the Red Hill Catastrophe
Kristen Nemoto Jay
There’s a local viral video that turned Ernest “Ernie” Lau, chief engineer and manager of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, into a Hawai‘i household name. The video — seen on every local TV news station and currently over 170,000 times on 808viral’s Instagram page — shows Lau standing before a collection of masked reporters and journalists, speaking at a press conference on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. He confirms that the Navy’s test results concluded the presence of petroleum products in the water system, a conclusion to reports from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam residents a few weeks prior who claimed they smelled gasoline in their tap water; known today as the Red Hill crisis. Lau spoke in a firm but modest tone, stating the facts that further action must be done by the Navy to protect Hawai‘i’s aquifer, located 100 feet below an 80-year-old storage facility, which holds 180 million gallons of diesel and jet fuel. His request seems to start as a suggestion, both in tone and delivery, until he pauses for a couple of seconds, looks down, shakes his head, then lifts his chin back up to reveal tears in his eyes. The moment is brief but powerful as multiple camera angles zoom in on Lau’s face. His voice then deepens, as he tries to hold back what the public now knows as over eight years of struggle with the Navy’s careless dismissal of Hawai‘i’s drinking water, and pleads to say: “We cannot wait any longer. The water resource is precious. It’s irreplaceable. It’s pure. There is no substitute for pure water and our lives depend upon it. I would urge the decision makers and the Navy to take action immediately. To take away this risk from our vital water resources there.”
Lau’s raw and emotional response has prompted many to take a second look at the crisis that is Red Hill. His fight against the Navy these past months, and the past eight years, has turned him into the voice for Hawai‘i’s aquifer. While he continues to steer the story to focus on saving Hawai‘i’s drinking water, The Hawai‘i Herald wanted to learn his. How he’s come to be one of the most visible and vocal activists for Hawai‘i’s precious water resource — despite his claims of being a “simple service worker” — razor-sharp focused on his mission regardless of the public’s response in dubbing him a champion for Hawai‘i’s environment and people.
This is Lau’s story.
Before Red Hill
When Lau was in the fifth or sixth grade, he took a class trip with his ‘Ewa Elementary School classmates to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply building. He remembers witnessing a demonstration of Hawai‘i’s powerful water resource in action that day; a story that he continues to tell those who see the picture in his office of the pipe in front of their BWS building on Beretania Street in downtown Honolulu.
“There’s this pipe that’s connected to the artesian wells here on Beretania,” said Lau during a Zoom call from his BWS office. “They turned off all the pumps and then opened up that pipe where water gushed out like a fountain under natural artesian pressure. I always remembered that image in my mind. I think that’s the reason why I gravitated to water resources and hydraulics.”
Lau can’t recall, however, why he chose to be an engineer as his career path, only that it was a knee-jerk answer after his Sunday School teacher asked him simply: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I was in high school and I remember just saying ‘an engineer’ for no real particular reason,” smiled Lau. “So I guess I just stuck with that idea from then on.”
A proud graduate of Waipahu High School, Lau attended then graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa for his bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering. He currently lives in Mānoa, where he and his wife raised their two daughters, but especially misses Waipahu when it rains too much in Mānoa.
“I’m really good at growing weeds,” laughed Lau. “I have to cut the weeds all the time at home.”
After graduating from UH Mānoa, Lau first began as a general contractor before working for BWS and the City and County of Honolulu for more than 14 years as an engineer in Long Range and Water Systems Planning. He continued working with water systems as the manager and chief engineer at the Kaua‘i Department of Water; then as the deputy director of the State Commission on Water Resource Management, Department of Land and Natural Resources before he was the administrator of the Public Works Division under the State Department of Accounting and General Services.
Despite his extensive knowledge in engineering and water resource management and planning, Lau humbly replies that he never thought he’d have the privilege of being BWS’ chief engineer and manager since his appointment on Feb. 1, 2012 — even though it seems to have become his calling.
“Life’s strange how things turn out.” said Lau with a head nod.
On Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, Lau received a phone call during lunch time from the Department of Health, alerting that 27,000 gallons of jet fuel had leaked from one of the tanks at the Red Hill storage facility. Like many at the time who were unaware of the storage facility, Lau was concerned of its possibility of harming Hawai‘i’s drinking water.
“I remember asking: ‘What tanks?’” said Lau. “I really didn’t know personally about the underground fuel storage facility at Red Hill until that phone call. And from that moment on for the next eight years, to present day, I’ve been asking the Navy for more information.”
Since then Lau, and now many within Hawai‘i’s communities, has learned that the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is located underground east of the Halawa Correctional Facility and consists of 20 tanks, and its connecting pipelines, that transport fuel to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam by sheer force of gravity. Each tank measures at 100 by 250 feet, and nearly fits the Statue of Liberty. The construction of the tanks started in the early 1940s, with its mission to be a fuel source in case of an emergency. When bombs rained down upon Pearl Harbor and thwarted the start of World War II, the validity of Red Hill’s creation and future usage had become further convinced by the military. The urgency for fuel at that time blanketed the warning signs of its rapid construction, with its current quarter of an inch thin corroding steel liner and a concrete wrapping as the only barrier that separates 180 million gallons of jet fuel from Hawai‘i’s aquifer — which accounts for 77% of the island’s total water resource — located 100 feet below. Today, military officials still believe the facility is needed in case of international threats to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, especially with increasing tensions from Russia and China. The BWS, Sierra Club of Hawai‘i, Department of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, many local lawmakers and now thousands of supporters want the facility to be shut down completely in fear that the jet fuel will continue to leak and harm Hawai‘i’s drinking water until it is damaged forever.
According to the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i, since 1943, there have been 73 leaks of 180,000 gallons of jet fuel that the Navy reported and that the state is aware of. Fifteen of those leak incidences are of “unknown” quantity. Not counting the Jan. 13, 2014 leakage, the 7,700 gallons in early 2020, the 19,000 gallons in May 2021, or the 14,000 gallons in November 2021 when proof of Red Hill’s poison made its way into the Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam residents’ tap water.
From that phone call to present day, Lau and his team have been working nonstop to rally community leaders and members into seeing the dangers of Red Hill; unafraid of the Navy’s Goliath-like and duplicitous requests such as asking BWS to sign a non-disclosure agreement early on into learning about Red Hill.
“I refused,” affirms Lau. “We are a public agency. We need to be able to communicate to our customers … Our community needs to know what’s happening. [I told them] We’re not signing an NDA. Ever.”
Lau continued to counter the Navy by personally sending out a letter to every BWS customer in 2016 — and again some time thereafter even though he was “talked to” by his constituents — to highlight the importance of upcoming meetings regarding the Red Hill crisis.
“Yeah, that got me in trouble a little bit with some elected officials,” said Lau. “But I wanted the community to know because it was so important. The public needed to know what was going on.”
His efforts were noticed as hundreds turned out for the first meeting at Moanalua Middle School’s cafeteria and nearly prompted a fist fight in the second. Lau said as much as there are people who are passionate about the Red Hill crisis today, there were members within the community who were already inspired to make a change.
“We’ve had strong support from the start,” said Lau. “Unfortunately it took this next crisis on Red Hill for everyone to take notice but I’m happy more people are getting involved.”
BWS’ continued efforts in keeping the public updated on Red Hill shows in their past and current collection of meeting announcements posted on their website since October 2015. It’s an alarming amount of data and documents, showing years of BWS, the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i, EPA and DOH all battling for Hawai‘i’s right to clean and uncontaminated water; only to be met with constant delay, denial and a roundabout of unsuccessful alternative solutions from the Navy.
“For the longest time [the Navy] said that the tanks were not leaking,” said Lau. “That the steel plate, the quarter inch steel plate, is not rusting. They said that for years even though we have proof and we’ve been telling them that it’s rusting. You’d think they’d understand to also look at the pipelines, which should be double-walled but are single-walled and are just as old as the tanks … that there needs to be some accountability. We need to act now before it’s too late.”
Warnings of Red Hill’s dangerous effects upon Hawai‘i’s aquifer came to its most sounding alarm during the week of Thanksgiving 2021 when Red Hill’s jet fuel had finally made its way into the military residents’ tap water. After the confirmation of the test results had indicated water contamination, the Navy could no longer deescalate the crisis that was and still is Red Hill. Yet with the contamination affecting their own personnel, soldiers, families, businesses and civilian workers on base, the Navy’s continual hesitancy and overall dismissal of Red Hill’s severity over the past eight years is not surprising to Lau.
“You’d think that they’d say ‘we should empty out the fuel’ as it’s revealed a vulnerability that’s right in front of their eyes, affecting their own military families,” said Lau. “Makes you wonder what they think we need more in order to survive. That they’d understand we need to take care of the environment and take care of our precious water resource.
“These precious and irreplaceable resources are gifts to us,” continues Lau, holding back tears, as he describes his feelings that day during the press conference back in December 2021. “[The aquifer] has no voice. They have no one to speak for them, to speak in their defense. I’m sad that we’ve reached this point, which could have been avoided.”
What could have been done differently, said Lau, is the Navy’s cooperation and willingness to be transparent for the greater good of the community. That they should have all been on the same page that contamination of Hawai‘i’s aquifer means harm to Hawai‘i’s environment and people. Lau also wishes Hawai‘i’s regulators to be more responsible moving forward, not to bend to the Navy, and for everyone to just “do their job.”
“We’re going to protect this resource for future generations so we need to be all together, all levels of government, the grassroots and the community … We may not all be in 100% alignment but that’s OK. But one thing we should all agree upon is that water is vital for life. There is no substitute for pure water. That’s the common string that binds us all together, and together we can be stronger than our individual efforts.”
The pipe (left), located outside of the BWS building, is where Lau witnessed the power of Hawai‘i’s water system for the first time. Children are seen here (right), taken some time in the 1930s, watching the pipe come alive as BWS workers let the natural artesian waters burst out of the fixture and into a shooting fountain. (Photo courtesy of Honolulu Board of Water Supply)
Trust and Courage
As awareness of Red Hill has grown exponentially, making its way in Hawai‘i’s headlines nearly everyday, and has also been highlighted in national news, Lau is hopeful for change especially with his team at BWS and the growing number of supporters from within the community who are not afraid to ask the tough questions.
“I’m not alone in doing this,” said Lau. “Erwin Kawata has been with me for eight years in this. Kathleen Pahinui has been instrumental in our communications … We had feedback from a teacher out on the west side and they said that the message that we’re sending is reaching their keiki. I was really happy to hear that. It really touched me. All we’re doing is telling people how we need to protect this water resource and I didn’t realize that the children are listening too.”
Though Lau is hopeful to look to the future in continuing to speak for Hawai‘i’s aquifer, when asked if he can ever trust the Navy again, Lau takes a moment to think about his answer.
“Trust is earned,” said Lau firmly. “The Navy’s words are nice but it’s really the actions of them and all those involved that will show their commitment. That they are indeed going to protect our water resources.”
Lau encourages all those who want to get involved and help speak for Hawai‘i’s aquifer by having the courage to stand up for what’s right. His inspiration to remain courageous sometimes comes from a glass plaque that reads chikara (strength) in kanji that he has in his office. It was given to him by a friend as a gesture of encouragement when Lau and his team were going through some tough times at BWS. He still looks at the plaque, especially now, when he’s in need of strength and motivation. He hopes to extend this encouragement to the next generation, stating that his voice will “soon fade away.”
“Be willing to stand up for something that [you] believe in,” said Lau as he holds up the plaque. “Have strength and be courageous.”
Though he’s taking “one year at a time” when it comes to thinking about retirement, Lau jokes and says he still has to work to help pay for his daughter’s college tuition along with needing to continue to fight for Hawai‘i’s aquifer. He’s grateful for those who’ve stuck by BWS prior, involved now, and finds peace in knowing that there are others who, he claims, can easily take his place.
“I’m just a regular public servant,” said Lau. “Please, anybody can do this. It’s just not me. Anybody can do this.”