Stopgap Spending Bill with $350 Million for Hawaii Water Crisis Clears House

Airman completes the daily pH, chlorine and bacteria tests on water
Airman 1st Class Armando Deleon completes the daily pH, chlorine and bacteria tests on water distributed from bulk containers, Aliamanu Military Reservation, Hawaii, Jan.12, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeremy Lemmon Jr.)

The military would get $350 million to respond to the water contamination crisis caused by Navy fuel storage in Hawaii under a bill passed Tuesday by the House.

The funding was included in a stopgap spending bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government open past Feb. 18, when the current CR is set to expire.

The House voted 272-162 to approve the CR. All but one of the "no" votes came from Republicans, while 51 Republicans supported the measure. The bill must still pass the Senate, where Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised to take quick action to prevent a government shutdown.

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Typically, CRs just extend existing funds while preventing government agencies from starting any new programs. But lawmakers can include so-called "anomalies" that provide new funding, which they did to respond to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility spill.

Specifically, the CR would provide the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force with $250 million to cover expenses related to the water contamination.

It would also give $100 million to the Defense Department to comply with a Hawaiian order to drain the fuel tanks at Red Hill, an order the department is currently fighting in court.

"This bill funds defueling, and it establishes Congress's position on Red Hill: the DoD must defuel and follow the state's order immediately," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement taking credit for securing the funding. "We still have more work to do, but we are making good progress to protect our water and get this right."

    Starting in late November, military families at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Aliamanu Military Reservation began reporting that their water smelled like fuel and had a visible, oily sheen.

    The Hawaii Department of Health and the Navy later determined the issues were caused by a fuel spill from the Red Hill storage facility earlier in the month that contaminated a well and shaft below the property.

    The spill has affected thousands of military families and civilians, displacing some and causing others to bring in outside water in order to stay in their homes.

    Defense officials have vowed to rectify the situation, but are currently locked in a battle with Hawaii over the state's order to drain the fuel stored at Red Hill.

    Beyond the funding to grapple with the water contamination, the CR would keep the government open through March 11, giving lawmakers another month to come to an agreement on regular spending bills for the fiscal year that started in October.

    For months, lawmakers were at an impasse over partisan divisions on domestic spending, raising fears this could be the first time Congress funds the government with a CR for the entire year. But this week, lawmakers started to express more optimism about reaching a deal by the new March deadline.

    "I believe we are very close to an agreement, and I am eager to move this process forward," House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said on the House floor. "I have every expectation that we can finalize a framework in short order and then fill in the details and enact an omnibus."

    An omnibus refers to a spending package for the entire government, rather than the 12 separate spending bills that would be considered under the normal funding process.

    Defense officials have issued stark warnings about what could happen if the military is forced to live with a CR for the entire year.

    Among those warnings, the Navy has said one of its top priorities, the Columbia-class submarine, could be delayed and lose half a billion dollars in funding with a full-year CR.

    But the CR passed by the House on Tuesday also includes a gift for the Navy in the form of an anomaly: It would provide $1.6 billion for the Columbia-class submarine program to prevent delays.

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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