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Taxpayers on hook for Honolulu Harbor molasses clean up

By   /   September 20, 2013  /   News  /   3 Comments

Photo by Elizabeth Miles

MOLASSES KILL: Dead fish picked up on the beach at Ke’ehi Lagoon.

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU – It’s going to cost Hawaii taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up a molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor that killed thousands of fish.

Matson Navigation Co. allowed 233,000 gallons of molasses to leak into the ocean, causing $3 billion in damage.

The state estimates it will cost millions of dollars for the clean up, and taxpayers are on the hook even though Matson’s parent company, Alexander & Baldwin, said it will pay fines and other costs associated with remediation and restoration.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii,  has promised Gov. Neil Abercrombie federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act funding to cover expenses related to the spill.

In addition, state and federal personnel from the Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike Team, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii Department of Health, Department of Land and Natural Resources and Department of Transportation, have been working overtime. They’ve collected and counted dead fish.

They’ve also researched what can be done to flush out the molasses because, unlike oil, molasses sinks to the bottom and mixes quickly with the seawater.

They also are looking to repair damage to coral and other marine life.

GOO: The molasses spill impacted sealife in Ke’ehi Lagoon, seen here, and Honolulu Harbor

“Each agency has brought in its most experienced staff from around the country and I am confident they will work together to develop appropriate solutions to the problem,” said incident commander Keith Kawaoka.

Matson transports more than 80 percent of goods to Hawaii BY cargo container ship. The company’s monopoly is protected by the 1920 federal Jones Act legislation, which requires cargo shipped between American ports must be transported by American-owned and manned ships. The molasses operation, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co, is also owned by Alexander & Baldwin.

While the president of the company assured the public that shipping rates will not increase to cover the cost of clean up and fines, there is little government oversight to ensure the company will be held to that promise.

The Surface Transportation Board has governed rates in the “domestic offshore” trades since 1995, and no rate is supposed to increase by more than 7.5 percent annually plus fuel surcharges. However, a Watchdog investigation showed there is only oversight by the federal board unless if a complaint is filed.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

ON DUTY: Personnel from Coast Guard National Strike Force, EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA head to their first location to monitor depleted oxygen and pH levels in Honolulu Harbor.

Although the state Department of Health “dissolved oxygen and pH levels are returning to normal target levels in Honolulu Harbor and Keehi Lagoon,” the state laboratory director for the Department of Health State Lab Division predicted the situation in Honolulu Harbor could become even more dire.

Christian Wayland told Hawaii New Now it is possible there could be a large overgrowth of bacteria that will degrade the water quality and drive the dissolved oxygen down again, killing more marine life.

The sugary waters also are hurting business operations in the harbor for fishermen and boaters because they are afraid to start their engines without knowing what damage the molasses can do.

Reach Malia Zimmerman at [email protected]


Malia formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Bruce Boelter

    It’s MOLASSES. It’s NATURAL and its FOOD. Why would we spend millions of dollars to clean up something that natural sea life will clean up and return to normal in a few months?

  • Ev Jon

    $12,875 PER GALLON in cleanup costs?? That’s what the article says. That’s insane!!! How about leaving it alone – zero clean up costs. To bad about the dead fish but they are already dead and the environment will very quickly clean up the mess all by itself.

  • Jak Crow

    It doesn’t matter if it’s “natural” or “food”. It’s in an environment it was never meant to be in, and it could take months or longer to dissipate. Last time I checked, you don’t feed marine animals molasses. My god the ignorance is astounding. Sheesh….