A molasses spill that darkened the waters of Honolulu Harbor early Monday has killed thousands of fish. However, a University of Hawaii researcher said the massive leak that occurred near Pier 52 is also killing off coral heads at an alarming rate.
"Corals that were likely stressed a day or two ago are now dead,” said Dr. Bob Richmond, research professor and director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Kakaako. “So, inside the harbor is where we see a lot of mortality, but even coming out of the harbor turning to the west, you can see the influence of the plume extending."
The alarming assessment comes as federal help arrived on Oahu Friday to assist the state Health Department with its efforts to mitigate the impact of the spill. EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi said two on-scene coordinators from Region IX will be briefed by state officials before making any determination on a course of action.
“They’ll start making contact with some of the other federal agencies and see what they have been doing, because those other agencies have been doing certain things on their own,” said Higuchi. “A lot of it will be fact-finding, gathering information and then huddling with everybody to see what more can be done to help reduce the impacts of the spill.”
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz announced Friday the U.S. Coast and NOAA would also be assisting the state in its response, and emergency funding through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act would be made available.
“This has become a very serious situation,” Schatz said in a written statement. “We need all hands on deck when it comes to protecting our marine environment, and that’s why we are working to bring federal resources into Hawai‘i as quickly as possible.”
Matson Navigation Co. has already taken responsibility for the 233,000 gallons of molasses that poured into harbor. But during a news conference Thursday morning, a senior company official said Matson wasn’t even aware of the section of pipeline that burst. The company also revealed it did not have a fully developed emergency response plan to deal with a molasses spill of the scope and magnitude that’s currently affecting Honolulu Harbor.
State Sen. Will Espero said the lack of an emergency plan is troubling, especially after another spill on Maui sent 50,000 gallons of molasses into the ocean in 2003.
"The biggest question is why the state didn't require an emergency response plan for Matson, or for any operation that might be dealing with these molasses issues," Espero told KITV4. “One would assume after that the state would have made it a point to make certain that there was a response plan for any spillage.”
On Friday, Matson spokesman Jeff Hull said the company is confident the amount of molasses estimated to have entered the harbor won’t change. Hull also said a handful of individuals had contacted Matson about filing damage claims due to losses they may have suffered as a result of the spill.
Meanwhile, Richmond believes researchers have determined why so many fish were killed by the molasses plume, which continues to dissipate slowly. He says it appears the molasses is drawing water from inside the cells of fish, causing those cells to shrink and collapse. However, that still needs to be verified through further testing.
“The cells are kind of like liquid-filled balloons, and if you change the outside chemistry of the surrounding water, it can cause the balloons to either expand and explode, or in this case, to shrink down and collapse,” explained Richmond.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority issued a news release Friday stating the molasses spill has not impacted ocean activity operators in Waikiki or Kewalo Basin, and there have been no reports of vacation cancellations directly linked to the incident.
Still, some news organizations have been sensationalizing the story with The Guardian posting an online headline Friday that read, “Shark attacks feared in Hawaii after molasses spill.”