U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says more than just a pipe failed when 1,400 tons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor last week, killing thousands of fish.
Schatz says it’s clear lawmakers have to look at how the system run by shipping company Matson Navigation Co. is regulated by federal and state officials.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to take a look at," Schatz told The Associated Press when asked about Matson’s lack of a spill plan and oversight of the underground pipes connected to Hawaii’s waters.
Some 233,000 gallons of molasses spilled from a leaky pipe Sept. 9 as the sugary substance was moved from storage tanks to ships sailing to California. It happened in an industrial area west of downtown where Matson loads molasses and other goods for shipping. The company has said it doesn’t normally use that section of pipe.
State and federal agencies appear to have little role in maintaining the underground pipes, state officials said last week.
"It’s clear that this wasn’t just a mechanical failure of a pipe but also a systems failure," Schatz said.
A U.S. Coast Guard unit that specializes in responding to hazardous spills is joining the effort to clean up and assess the damage.
Vic Angoco, senior vice president for Matson’s Pacific operations, has said the company takes responsibility but had no contingency plan for the possibility of the spill, despite moving molasses from the harbor for about 30 years.
State officials have said they don’t believe Matson was required to have any such plans, despite having plans for spills of oil or other hazardous chemicals.
Thousands of fish have died in the spill, most likely from a lack of oxygen. But the full extent of the damage and how long it might last are unclear.
"All of us who care about the south shore of Oahu are sick about this," Schatz said. "But we don’t really know the status of the ecosystem and we won’t until we have scientists in the water collecting and analyzing data."
The Coast Guard’s Pacific Strike team includes more than 70 people to help assess the situation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also have responded, along with state agencies.
State and company officials said last week that the exact cause of the spill is still under investigation. Gary Gill, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Health, said the leak happened when molasses seeped into a section of pipe that was supposed to be sealed off.
Schatz said officials are focusing on assessing and containing damages right now, and can focus on how things went wrong afterward.
"That’s going to take research and resources, and this is a current problem in the ocean right now," Schatz said. "We have to have all hands on deck in mitigating it while we still can."