On Saturday, a gaggle of cameramen and reporters boarded a tug boat at Pier 9 behind Aloha Tower to go on a tour of what's being called the largest marine disaster in the state’s history — a massive molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor.
The event was organized by the Hawaii Department of Health and aimed to give the journalists a sense of the magnitude of the disaster as well as clear up any misconceptions about the spill and the subsequent response efforts.
But if there was one takeaway from Saturday’s gathering it's that the state and federal governments need to find a better way to regulate shipments of molasses. Unlike oil or other products, molasses is not considered a hazardous material by oversight agencies.
“If this was oil we would have had millions of dollars of resources on it within minutes,” said Gary Gill, the deputy director who’s leading the the Department of Health’s emergency response team. “There’s a huge response apparatus for oil and petroleum products, but there’s no apparatus for molasses.”
Dead fish and other marine life began washing ashore Sept. 9 after a leak in a Matson Inc. molasses pipeline dumped 233,000 gallons of the sugary liquid into the waters. Ever since, the plume — which cannot be cleaned up and must dissolve naturally — has killed everything in its pathway, from surgeonfish and eels to crab and coral.
But on Saturday response crews said the damage is subsiding. Officials aren’t finding as many dead fish and oxygen levels in the water are improving, which should allow the marine life to once again breath without having to come to the surface to gasp for air.
Still, what has become increasingly clear is that there needs to be a regulatory framework in place to make sure similar accidents don’t occur in the future.
Matson ships hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses to the mainland mainly to be used for animal feed. Shipments usually occur once a week, but company officials have halted exports until any issues related to the spill have been resolved.
Matson is responsible for inspecting and maintaining the molasses pipes at the harbor. While the piers are owned by the state, officials say the sugar pipelines that run underneath belong to the company through a lease agreement.
But what’s unclear is how closely Matson monitors its pipelines. The company’s safety manager, Chris Lee, was on Saturday’s tour and said he wasn’t sure about the inspection history of the pipes. He noted that the state, too, is still trying to figure out details related to pipeline’s age and ownership.
Even if Matson does inspect its own molasses pipelines, there’s no government agency monitoring any company reports. The oversight just doesn’t exist the way it does for hazardous materials, such as oil and gas. The Coast Guard is in charge of the oversight of those marine pipelines.
But the lack of regulation is likely to be changing. The molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor has garnered international attention. Some have labeled it the largest marine disaster in the state’s history, comparing it to a 2006 fiasco in which the city dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal and polluted Waikiki’s beaches.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation is also keenly aware of the environmental damage that has been done. On Friday, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz issued a press release saying he had pushed to bring in federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Coast Guard, to help the state with the response.
“This has become a very serious situation,” Schatz said in a statement. “We need all hands on deck when it comes to protecting our marine environment, and that’s why we are working to bring federal resources into Hawaii as quickly as possible.”
Gill, too, intends to bring up the molasses spill at an annual meeting of the Environmental Council of the States next week. The council is a nonprofit association made up of the heads of state and territorial environmental agencies. The group works to improve human health and environmental management in the U.S.
State legislators have taken notice as well. On Monday, several lawmakers, including Rep. Chris Lee, Ryan Yamane and Della Au Belatti, are scheduled to take their own tour of the harbor to get a sense of the damage caused by Matson’s broken molasses pipe.
Lee, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said the purpose of the tour will be to assess the damage and to see if lawmakers need to step in to possibly tighten regulations to reduce the liability on taxpayers.
“I do think it’s too early to rush to judgment on anything at this point, but we do want to make sure that the processes and protections are in place to prevent this from happening again,” Lee said. “There (also) has to be the ability to quickly respond and that’s where we need to make sure the state and private entities operating here are able to do that in the future.”
Matson, which has accepted responsibility for the molasses spill, did not have a response plan in place for a molasses spill.