The Hawaii molasses disaster and a lesson not learned


I think we can all agree – even those of us who have never been there – that Hawaii is an outrageously spectacular place. The bio-diversity alone! Just take a look at the Wikipedia entry for “fish of Hawaii” – there are over twenty different types of Butterflyfish- and that is just one family.

The beauty and wonder of Hawaii deepened the tragedy of news of the death of thousands of fish - killed en masse by one of the strangest semi-natural causes.

On Monday a brown plume was spotted in Honolulu Harbor, which was identified as a growing spill of sticky, sweet liquid molasses. A corroded pipe used to pump the molasses stored in two large reservoirs onto a cargo ship bound for California, had burst. The faulty pipe poured 233,000 gallons of molasses into the water, turning it a shade of brown-yellow.

It is hard to picture how much molasses that is, but the AP describes it as “equivalent to what would fill about seven rail cars or about one-third of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

The thing about molasses is that it is super thick and heavy. The hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses immediately sunk to the bottom of the harbor, quickly dispersing to the deepest points of the ocean floor, displacing the thin oxygen at those depths. The molasses essentially suffocated thousands of fish.

Why there should have been a plan for this, after the jump…

Locals began seeing deep-dwelling reef fish –beautiful, rare types of fish— all floating dead on the surface. Unfortunately, there is no clean-up process possible for this kind of spill. Unlike oil that can be skimmed off the surface, the molasses will have to be dispersed by the tides and currents that will flush it out to sea.

But, why was molasses being pumped into a barge in the Honolulu Harbor? Turns out, a load of the stuff is shipped to California weekly and comes from a local sugarcane plantation in Maui.

Molasses is actually the by-product of refining sugar. It can be made from sugarcane or grapes or even beets. The molasses in question is from sugarcane grown and manufactured by Hawaii’s very last producer of sugar.

Sugar was the main industry for Hawaii before tourism took over. Sugarcane plantations covered Hawaii and the industry dominated the economics of the archipelago. There is a pretty tough history of foreign labor from Japan, China and elsewhere that worked these fields.

Today the last plantation is the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, which is over a century old and is still cultivating 36,000 acres of sugarcane in central Maui. They produce 200,000 tons of raw sugar and 60,000 tons of molasses each year. Most of the raw sugar goes to California for refining and the molasses is mostly sold to Hawaii’s livestock industry for feed. The excess – which was being pumped onto those barges – is shipped to California for consumer retail.

That is the molasses that spilled in Honolulu Harbor. The company responsible, Matson, Inc.. has apologized but really has not been able to offer much else. From the AP:

“The shipping company responsible for a molasses spill that has killed thousands of fish in Hawaii says it is truly sorry for not being ‘good stewards’ of the ocean. A Matson Navigation Co. spokesman says the company didn’t plan ahead for the possibility of a spill.”

But the problem with that statement is that this has happened before. In 2003, a hole in a transmission line spilled 50,000 gallons of molasses into neighboring Kahului Harbor on Maui as it was being pumped onto a barge.

The molasses of the 2003 spill came from the same molasses company and was being pumped by the same shipping company. The “possibility” of a spill was a real event that had happened before.

Hawaiian Health Department official has this to say about the spill:

“This is the worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across, and it’s fair to say this is a biggie, if not the biggest that we’ve had to confront in the state of Hawaii.”

The Department of Health is in the midst of removing thousands of dead fish from the water. They are also now warning locals to stay out of the waters affected because the thousands of dead fish will potentially attract sharks.

It seems that natural and man-made disasters are not mutually exclusive events.

The Hawaii molasses disaster and a lesson not learned