The same day Hawaii lawmakers opened up their investigation into the massive molasses spill that has killed more than 25,000 fish, the head of the company responsible for the environmental disaster said Matson Inc. is footing the bill.
On Monday, Matson President and CEO Matthew Cox joined state officials for a tour of the Honolulu Harbor where a damaged molasses line dumped 233,000 gallons of the thick sugary liquid into the water, creating a widening death zone for fish, crab and coral.
In no uncertain terms, Cox said his company will cover all costs that have been and that will be incurred by government agencies that are scooping up dead marine life, testing the water and otherwise responding to the spill, which some have said could be the worst in Hawaii’s history.
“Matson will cover the cost of this response, not the taxpayers, and also it means that customer rates are not going to go up as a result of this spill,” Cox said as he read from a prepared statement.
“In the meantime we’ve ceased our molasses operations and will not resume until we can do it in a safe and responsible manner. If it’s determined that the current system can’t be repaired or its not feasible to replace the system, we’re prepared to discontinue our molasses operation if we can’t be completely sure that this will not happen again.”
Cox admitted that there are still many questions that remain about how such a catastrophe could occur. But he also assured state officials that his company will do a thorough investigation that will be made public once completed.
Matson faces the possibility of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the environmental damage that the company has caused. Under the Clean Water Act the company could be penalized as much as $25,000 per day.
"If it takes a week, a month, a year, 10 years, we're going to be here until this is made right," the Matson CEO said, "and we need to be comfortable that this is never going to happen again."
The company owns the molasses pipe that has a fist-sized hole in it, which caused the sugar byproduct to dump into the harbor. The spill was discovered Sept. 9. The company is also in charge of inspecting and maintaining the line, although company officials have been unable to say when they last inspected the pipe.
State officials are just as uninformed on that front. The Hawaii Department of Transportation Harbors Division oversees operations at the Honolulu Harbor, but the agency provides no oversight of Matson’s molasses operations.
Molasses is not a regulated, hazardous substance, such as oil and gas, meaning that there is virtually no regulatory framework for it.
“If it’s not regulated it flies under the radar,” Department of Transportation Director Glenn Okimoto said.
The agency is still in the process of researching the history of the pipelines underneath the piers at Honolulu Harbor, he said. No one knows how old the pipes are, and Okimoto said there was no indication that there were any problems with the infrastructure prior to last week’s molasses spill.
Among the lawmakers on Monday’s tour of the harbor were state Reps. Ryan Yamane, Della Au Belatti and Chris Lee as well as Sen. Mike Gabbard. Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office was represented by his deputy chief of staff Blake Oshiro.
The legislators hinted that tougher regulations could be on the way for molasses operations. It’s the only company in the state that ships the product to the mainland. Molasses is also the only product Matson ships that uses a pipeline.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions that we will need to look at as legislators,” Au Belatti said, “about inspections, responsibility, maintenance, all those questions the public has been asking.”
In the meantime, the state has partnered with the federal government and hired consultants to help in the response. Officials are also looking at restoration efforts to bring back dying coral and restore fish populations, although no specific plans have been announced.