HONOLULU - Officials responding to a spill of 233,000 gallons of molasses in Hawaii waters plan to let nature clean things up, with boat crews collecting thousands of dead fish to determine the extent of environmental damage.
The crews already have collected about 2,000 dead fish from waters near Honolulu Harbor, and they expect to see more in the coming days and possibly weeks, said Gary Gill, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Health.
"Our best advice as of this morning is to let nature take its course," Gill said during a news conference at the harbor, where commercial ships passed through discolored, empty-looking waters.
The fishing boat Laysan arrives at Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor to unload its catch of fish Thursday. In the background is the Matson container ship MahiMahi, which is being loaded at the Matson container baseyard’s Pier 52. A pipe maintained by Matson at Pier 52 cracked Monday and leaked about 233,000 gallons of molasses into the harbor. The molasses spill is being blamed for the killing of marine life at Keehi Lagoon which is located near the Honolulu Harbor. The cracked pipe has been repaired and the molasses leak stopped.
A senior executive for the shipping company responsible, Matson Navigation Co., said it was taking responsibility but hadn't planned ahead of time for the possibility of a spill.
The state didn't require Matson to plan for the possibility, Gill and a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman said.
Vic Angoco, senior vice president for Matson's Pacific operations, said that the company had been loading and transporting molasses at the harbor for about 30 years.
Angoco said that the company regrets what happened.
"We take pride in being good stewards of the land, good stewards of the ocean, and in this case, we didn't live up to our standards," he said. "And we are truly sorry for that, we're truly sorry for that."
More fish have died because of the spill than in any other incident in the area, Gill said.
The fish are dying because the high concentration of molasses is making it difficult for them to breathe, said Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo.
The spill occurred Monday in an industrial area where Matson loads molasses and other goods for shipping. The harbor is west of downtown Honolulu.
Three days after the spill, several patches of discolored water were clearly visible from across the harbor where Matson operates, and fish were tougher than usual to see.
John Hernandez, owner of a fish broker across the harbor from Matson, said he believed it would take years for the waters to restore.
"Mother Nature and the Earth seem to always have to deal with our (mistakes)," Hernandez said.
Downstream from the spill, workers collected dead fish in nets at a small sailing club, placing them in plastic bags and blue plastic tubs. About a half-mile away, recreational fishers tried their luck despite warnings from state officials to avoid eating fish from the waters.
Angoco said Matson temporarily patched the hole and the pipe stopped leaking Tuesday morning. The company was working on a permanent fix.
He said that the leak occurred in a section of pipe that was not normally used. But he declined to say how the molasses got into the section of pipe where it eventually leaked, saying the company was still investigating.
Gill said that the molasses seeped through a section that was supposed to have been sealed off, into the abandoned part of the pipe and eventually to the water.
As much as 233,000 gallons of molasses leaked into the harbor. That's equivalent to what would fill about seven rail cars or about one-third of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Underwater video taken by Honolulu television station Hawaii News Now showed dead fish, crabs and eels scattered along the ocean floor of the harbor and the water tinted a yellowish brown.
The state has been documenting the collected fish and keeping them on ice for possible testing. Officials were also collecting water samples. The data will allow the department to estimate the duration and severity of the contamination.
Matson ships molasses from Hawaii to the Mainland about once a week. Molasses is made at Hawaii's last sugar plantation, run by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on Maui.