A Sticky Mess

A molasses spill in Honolulu creates major environmental concerns


A local fishermen holds up two of the more than 25,000 fish thought to have been killed as a result of the spill. Photo: AP

Last week, more than 200,000 gallons of molasses emptied into Honolulu Harbor, creating a number of tragic environmental issues for the state's fragile waters. The spill occurred when a faulty pipe transporting the molasses to a Matson ship accidentally unloaded the molasses directly in to the harbor. The molasses, which is a byproduct of sugar cane grown on the island, was intended to be loaded on a ship headed for the West Coast.

As a result of the spill, more than 25,000 fish and crustaceans have been killed. In response, state officials fear that an influx of sharks will target the area and have warned surfers and swimmers to stay out of the ocean near the harbor. It should be noted that the area where the incident took place, Keehi Lagoon, is not a high-traffic area for surfers or swimmers.

In a statement given to the Huffington Post, Roger Smith, a local dive shop owner who has frequented the area for more than three decades, described the situation in the harbor as dire. After getting a first-hand look at the results of the spill, Smith said that "everything that was underwater suffocated. Everything climbed out of its hole and the whole bottom was covered with fish, crabs, lobsters, worms, sea fans--anything that was down there was dead."

Unlike oil, molasses does not float on the surface, but rather sinks to the ocean’s floor and sucks the oxygen out of the sea. In an interview with NBC News, Mark Hixon, a professor of marine biology at the University of Hawaii, said that the sweet syrup "forms a soup that clogs the gills of sealife and may otherwise smother plants and animals living on the seafloor.”

Matson has claimed full responsibility for the spill and has vowed to pay for clean up efforts. “We take our role as an environmental steward very seriously,” the company said in a statement. “We have a long history in Honolulu Harbor and can assure all involved that this is a rare incident.” However, the company did not have a contingency plan to deal with the effects of such a spill.

Cleaning up the sticky liquid won’t be easy. Environmental experts believe that it will take a combination of ocean currents, bacterial digestion, and some time until the harbor has purged itself of the molasses.

For Honolulu's Randall Paulson, the environmental magnitude of the spill and its project impact on the ecosystem was not lost. "We live in such a special place over here in Hawaii. I think this spill was terrible. I can only hope that they get it cleaned up quickly and that something like this never happens again. We have to take more precautions moving forward to ensure that we avoid another incident like this."