While the cause (a damaged underwater pipe) and the immediate effects (over 26,000 fish dead, dying coral, likely millions of dollars in cleanup and fines) of the Honolulu Harbor molasses spill is now clear, the future of molasses shipments from Hawaii remains a bit murkier.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Matson (the shipping company responsible for the spill) has not yet decided whether it will resume molasses transport from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, or whether the temporary halt will become permanent. Matson President and Chief Executive Matt Cox told Bloomberg, “This is not a material part of our business as far as its revenue generation ... We’re not ready to take the risk of this happening again.”
In a news conference on Sept. 16, Cox announced: "If it is determined that the system cannot be operated safely or in an environmentally responsible manner, and that repairing and replacing the system would be impractical, we will discontinue our molasses operations."
Matson is an enormous entity that has been operating in Hawaii and around the world for over 130 years. Molasses shipment is not a significant element of their revenue, but it may be more important for Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S), the Maui-based company that produces the molasses.
According to Matson Senior Vice President Vic Angoco, Matson shipped 1600-2000 tons of HC&S molasses a week. Hawaii News Now reported that Matson exported 50,000 tons of molasses last year. HC&S is Hawaii’s last sugar plantation. The molasses it sells is a low-grade byproduct of its sugar production, sold as an additive for cattle feed.
Matson typically loads the molasses onto barges and transports it from Maui to Honolulu, where it is pumped through underwater pipes into storage containers, and then pumped back onto ships bound for the U.S. mainland, according to Angoco.
Since molasses is not considered a hazardous material, it is not regulated like oil and gas. In fact, as Civil Beat reported this week, there is absolutely no oversight or regulation over the molasses pipes leased by Matson in Honolulu Harbor. When asked shortly after the spill when the pipes had last been inspected, Matson officials did not know.
So while it is possible that molasses transport through Honolulu Harbor will be discontinued completely, that decision would skip a gigantic step, which would be to implement inspection, oversight and regulation of the pumping and transport system. Lawmakers and citizens are also questioning what response plan Matson had in place for this scenario, especially after 50,000 gallons of molasses spilled in Kahului Harbor on Maui in 2003. The answer? There was no plan.