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09/12/2013 02:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2013

Honolulu Molasses Spill Could Cause Substantial Damage To Marine Life

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State officials are rushing to head off an environmental and health disaster in Honolulu Harbor, where nearly a quarter million gallons of molasses from a ruptured pipeline have caused a massive marine die-off.

On Wednesday, colorful surgeonfish, pufferfish and eels were swaying limp or lifeless in the currents.

How much damage the molasses spill has caused was still being assessed. But health officials estimate that it's killing thousands of fish and damaging coral reefs.

State officials also warn there could be even more problems if they don’t quickly remove as many fish as possible from the contaminated waters. They worry that the dead fish could lure sharks into the harbor and Keehi Lagoon, where the plume of molasses has spread.

And the decaying fish could cause even more harm to the marine ecosystem.

“As fish die, oxygen is further sucked out of the water, leading to a domino effect of environmental impacts,” said Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health for the state Department of Health.

The massive numbers of dead fish could even cause algae blooms that further deplete the water’s oxygen levels. Algae blooms can sicken or kill fish, as well as create elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people ill, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

State officials are warning people not to swim in the water or eat the fish in the Keehi Lagoon area. The fish are unlikely poisonous, said Gill, but health experts don’t know for sure whether the molasses is having a toxic impact on marine life. This risk could increase if the health of the ecosystem further deteriorates.

Health officials believe the molasses is reducing the water’s oxygen levels, but they’re beginning to worry that it's also causing a physical reaction in the marine life that literally makes them unable to breathe. They're concerned because eels and crabs, which are usually the most hardy of marine life and can breathe air, are also dying, said Gill.

The health department increased the number of boats that it has collecting the fish from one to three on Wednesday, as the number of sightings of dead marine life increased. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is also assisting the effort with a boat of its own. And private boats are also scouring the waters.

On Tuesday, 500 fish were collected by the state health department. Gill said he didn’t have a number yet for the number of fish and other species collected on Wednesday.

It could take a month or more for the plume of thick, heavy molasses to dissipate, said Gill.

Jeff Hull, a spokesman for Matson, said that the company was sorry for the disaster. “It was our incident and we certainly apologize,” he said.

Hull said that it’s Maton’s responsibility to inspect their pipes, but didn’t know when the last inspection was done.

Currently, the state is picking up the tab for the disaster. Gill said that if the cost begins to approach $1 million, his department may have to seek emergency funding.

The state health department can seek triple damages from Matson for cleanup efforts. The company can also be fined under the federal Clean Water Act.

Gill said that it was too early to say whether the department would fine Matson or seek reimbursement for cleanup efforts.

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