Fuel Spill on Sacred Hawaiian Volcano 'Harmed Our Reputation,' Air Force Secretary Says

Haleakala Silversword plant at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex.
Rocks and flags identify a perimeter around a highly-endangered Haleakala Silversword plant, at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex, Hawaii, Feb. 21, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jimmie D. Pike)

An incident earlier this month in which 700 gallons of fuel were spilled at a Space Force observatory nestled atop a sacred Hawaiian volcano not only harmed the local community but also the Department of the Air Force’s reputation, Secretary Frank Kendall said Wednesday.

Kendall made the nearly 5,000-mile trip from Washington, D.C., to discuss cleanup plans after a generator failure late last month leaked diesel fuel at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex, located on the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakalā -- a culturally and religiously significant site for native Hawaiians, according to the National Park Service.

"This incident hurts the environment. It harmed our reputation, calls into question the trust placed on us by our local communities," Kendall said during a press conference. "To be clear, I apologize for what has happened, and this department will put our full, sustained effort in repairing what has been done."

Read Next: Air Force Expands Investigation into Possible Cancer Link to Missile Bases and Jobs

Even though weeks have passed since the Jan. 29 spill, the Air Force and Space Force still don't have a sense of how much damage has been caused to the environment on Haleakalā. Part of that delay is tied to the process of creating a plan that takes into account the cultural and religious significance of the soil, and communicating a plan to local agencies and groups for how to excavate the dirt.

Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, commander of the United States Space Forces Indo-Pacific, told reporters Wednesday that a plan is awaiting approval and could be put into place as soon as this week.

"I expect to get word back either today or tomorrow," Mastalir told reporters at the press conference. "At that point, we are ready to begin excavation."

In the days following the diesel leak, there was a significant amount of outrage from lawmakers and native groups.

Kāko'o Haleakalā, a local protest group, demonstrated at the site carrying numerous signs, some that read "U.S. Department of Defense Death" and "Time To Haalele" -- which translates to "Time To Desert," according to Ulukua, a Hawaiian electronic library service that provides a dictionary.

The group also posted an online petition titled "End the Maui Space Surveillance Site (MSSS) lease renewal in 2031," which had garnered upward of 500 signatures as of Thursday morning.

Mastalir has been trying to rebuild trust with the native Hawaiian community. He held a Feb. 10 meeting with lineal descendants of King Kamehameha, the revered leader who united the islands.

The Space Force also hired Dane Uluwehiokalani Maxwell, a local born in Pukalani on the slopes of Haleakalā, to monitor the excavation and provide cultural advice. Maxwell's grandfather was a notable critic of the space telescopes' early development atop the volcano, according to a Feb. 15 press release from U.S Space Force indo-Pacific.

"Dane will hold us accountable for actions at the site and ensure we are taking the culturally appropriate steps to remediate, while rebuilding trust with the local community at this sacred location," Mastalir said in the press release.

The spill was blamed on a diesel fuel pump for a backup generator that failed to shut off on the evening of Jan. 29, according to the Space Force. A float -- a piece that helps monitor fuel levels -- inside the fuel tank was defective.

Mastalir told reporters Wednesday that teams have been sent to conduct on-site inspections of generators at military installations across the state of Hawaii. The Space Force has six such generators at bases and installations throughout the area.

"We have thoroughly checked out all six of those generators to make sure that they were operating in compliance and that we don't see any issues similar to what we have found here at Haleakalā," Mastalir said at Wednesday's press conference.

The 700-gallon fuel spill at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex, which is home to the Defense Department's largest optical telescope, according to the Space Force's website, was only a fraction of the 20,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled at the Navy's Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility near Honolulu in 2021.

At least 93,000 people living in military housing on and around Pearl Harbor were affected by the massive jet fuel spill. More than 5,000 gallons eventually seeped into the ground and tap water.

That contamination forced thousands to leave their residences, and those who stayed had to rely on bottled water to get by. In 2022, the Pentagon announced that the World War II-era bulk fuel farm would be closed and drained.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: Space Force Still Assessing Damage Caused by Fuel Spill at Hawaiian Volcano

Story Continues