Ten days into a massive spill of molasses into Honolulu Harbor, state and federal officials tasked with responding to the crisis shared some good news Wednesday: the spill is naturally dissipating as initially predicted.
"Fortunately at this point, it appears that water quality including dissolved oxygen levels in the Honolulu Harbor and most of Keehi Lagoon have returned to normal or near normal levels largely due to the natural flushing," Ruth Yender of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said during a conference call led by Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz.
However, as quickly as the molasses is clearing up in some areas, it’s sticking around in others. Yender said a zone just west of the harbor near the Reef Runway may take longer to return to normal.
Meanwhile, divers continue to enter waters inside and near the harbor to gather coral samples for testing. Last week, researchers at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory determined coral has already suffered major damage, but an assessment of the situation continues.
“I don't think that there's been really enough of an assessment on the bottom,” said Michael Fry, an environmental contaminant biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We've seen a lot of injury to coral and dead crabs and other invertebrate organisms.”
Aerial and underwater images of molasses spill
Matson Navigation Co. has already taken responsibility for 233,000 gallons of molasses that spilled into the harbor last week Monday after a pipe the company didn’t even know existed burst near Pier 52. Matson spokesman Jeff Hull told KITV4 the company remains focused on responding to the spill, and has not made any determination whether to set aside funds for the possible restoration of coral.
Since molasses is not considered a toxic substance under federal law, Fry said it remains unclear who will pay for any damage caused to coral heads.
"It's in a grey area in terms of federal law, so we're not quite sure,” he said. “The state is certainly interested in preserving and protecting their resources, but we're in limbo in terms of knowing exactly where we're going."
When the 567-foot long guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Port Royal ran aground off the Reef Runway in February, 2009, the U.S. Navy spent $7 million to restore the reef. The effort involved the re-attachment of 5,400 loose coral colonies using hydraulic cement by CSA Ocean Sciences Inc.
Although it’s unclear whether any restoration of coral will take place in the aftermath of the molasses spill, the state could always go to court to try and hold Matson responsible for the cost of such a project.
"The legal consequences are always there, and even in an oil spill, there are certainly legal ramifications,” said Fry. “So, this is perhaps a little bit more complicated than that, but it's going to follow, we think, similar routes."
To date, the state Health Department (DOH) has collected 26,000 dead fish and other marine organisms since the spill occurred. The agency is also collecting water samples at 15 locations in Honolulu Harbor, Keehi Lagoon, and along Moanalua and Kapalama Streams.
“From the endangered species standpoint, we have not identified any endangered species that has been impacted by the molasses spill,” said Dr. Keith Kawaoka, the hazard evaluation and emergency response officer with DOH, who also took part in Wednesday’s conference call.
According to an aide to Sen. Schatz, 4,500 Hawaii residents took part in the conference call, which was open to the public. Federal and state officials are planning to hold a news conference Friday to provide the latest information regarding the molasses spill.
Currently, warning signs remain in place along Kapalama Canal, Keehi Lagoon and Lagoon Drive warning the public to stay out of the water and not to consume any fish from those areas.