HONOLULU (AP) — A community-led group formed to provide public oversight of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility will be shut down after the committee refused to cede control of the meetings to the military.

The Red Hill Community Representation Initiative, or CRI, was formed last year by an agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency. The aim was to give residents an open line of communication with the military after fuel from Red Hill tainted Pearl Harbor’s drinking water in 2021, sickening thousands of people.

But relations have devolved, with the military wanting to take charge of the meetings and community members declining to let them. On Wednesday, the EPA told CRI members it will be eliminating the forum altogether by signing a new agreement with the military that doesn’t include them.

“Because we cannot reach a consensus on ground rules, all the parties agree that we need to amend the consent order,” EPA regional enforcement chief Amy Miller said during a Zoom call with members.

Members responded with disbelief and outrage. CRI member Lacey Quintero, whose family fell severely ill after drinking water tainted by Red Hill fuel, was furious.

“You took the Navy’s side on this,” she said. “As a veteran, as a military spouse, shame on you!”

The military will not be required to attend the next CRI meeting on June 20. A new agreement is being negotiated, which may include an alternative to the CRI, Miller said.

Made up of environmental advocates and people impacted by the contamination, the CRI has been a forum to discuss the shut down of Red Hill and question military leaders. The group doesn’t always get answers, leading to heated interactions between angry community members and defensive military officials.

After a meeting in December turned contentious, the Navy skipped the following meeting. Since then, the military has tried to wrest control of meetings from the community members, proposing several specific changes.

Instead of Marti Townsend, an environmental justice attorney, running the meetings, the agencies would hire a facilitator of the Navy’s choosing, according to a copy of the military’s proposal. The military — not the CRI — would set the agenda, and the military would choose the meeting locations.

“All participants in CRI meetings are expected to conduct themselves in a respectful and professional manner during communications with other participants,” the proposal said.

In March, the Navy sent out a press release with its desired CRI meeting agenda under a banner stating the Navy “continues to prioritize civil discourse and community engagement.” In response, the CRI accused the Navy of trying to “commandeer” its meetings by distributing a “fake agenda.”

The EPA invited the CRI members to participate in a mediation with the military, but members refused because the meetings would not be public and the discussion kept confidential, according to CRI member Walter Chun.

However, the EPA and military proceeded with the mediated discussion and drafted a new set of ground rules for CRI meetings.

Under that proposal, the military would choose the meeting venue, and the EPA would choose a neutral facilitator who would lead meetings and finalize the agenda. Discussion would be limited to topics within the scope of the federal regulatory agreement. The meetings would include public comment, but each speaker would be limited to two minutes, and the military would not respond to questions from those public speakers.

The CRI objected to those changes.

“We don’t want the Navy to have the ability to dictate to us what we’re going to talk about,” Townsend said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think that is where the line is drawn. And it’s the same line on the mediator as well, because we see that as an attempt to control this meeting space that was, from my interpretation, designed to allow the community to have a place where they are able to drive the conversation.”

The cancellation of the CRI comes at a time when the Navy is hoping to improve its public image, Townsend noted. The military is trying to hang on to lands it holds under state land leases that are soon expiring and is aware that its reputation could influence lease renewal negotiations.

In light of that, the Navy is hoping to be the subject of more positive media coverage and strengthen public trust in the Navy, according to a public relations plan accidentally released to Civil Beat this month.

Now is not the time to do away with a forum that asks the military to be transparent, Townsend said.

“Their mission is to tell us everything is OK regardless of whether that is true,” she said. “I see the CRI’s role as being an opportunity for us to at least kick the tires and see, to road test it a little bit. Is it actually really OK?”

Civil Beat asked Navy Region Hawaii for an interview on Wednesday afternoon but received a written statement instead.

Lt. Cmdr. Joe Keiley, a Washington, D.C.-based Navy spokesman, said the Navy is “committed to a diverse program of engagements with the community” as it works to close Red Hill, remediate the environment and ensure access to safe drinking water.

Asked again for an interview, Keiley declined and referred further questions to the EPA.

According to Miller, Hawaii’s entire congressional delegation — Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz and Reps. Ed Case and Jill Tokuda — supports the decision to shut down the CRI.

“They thought it was out of hand,” Miller said, recalling a meeting with the delegation in the springtime. “They thought it needed ground rules. They thought it was disruptive. It was a pretty negative meeting.”

Civil Beat contacted the offices of each congressional representative for comment on Wednesday but did not receive any responses as of the time of publication.

Ilima DeCosta, a CRI member, said she feels the EPA “doesn’t have any power to protect the people.” She said members should continue their meetings, with or without federal government agencies present.

“I don’t care what we are called,” she said. “But we’re going to be there. We’re going to be standing up for the community.”

This story was originally published by Honolulu Civil Beat and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.

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