A massive spill of thick molasses has turned Honolulu Harbor into a watery wasteland where thousands of fish have been suffocated -- a disaster that officials say Mother Nature will have to clean up.
“There’s nothing alive there at all,” diver Roger White told NBC affiliate KHNL after making a seven-minute video of dead sea life blanketing the bottom of the harbor.
“Everything is dead. They’re all dead and they’re all just lying across the bottom -- hundreds and hundreds, thousands.”
A pipeline running from storage tanks to ships spewed up to 233,000 gallons of molasses – enough to fill one-third of an Olympic-size pool – into the water on Monday.
The shipping company, Matson Navigation, said the leak was repaired on Tuesday, but there's nothing it can do to clean up the mess. Gary Gill of the state Health Department said officials were advised "to let nature take its course."
"Unlike with an oil spill, it’s a sugar product so it will dissipate on its own," Matson spokesman Jeff Hull told NBC News on Thursday. "There’s not an active cleanup."
The thick substance swamping the harbor and turning the water brown has already wreaked havoc with marine life. Crews have collected 2,000 dead fish but expect to haul out many more in the weeks to come, officials said.
"The molasses is not toxic but it's heavier than water so it's spreading around on the sea floor, displacing the oxygen-rich water down there, and the fish are suffocating," said Keith Korsmeyer, a professor of biology at Hawaii Pacific University.
He said the the sugar in the molasses helps bacteria to breed, and the resulting blooms also sap the water of oxygen. The disruption to the delicate ecosystem could doom coral reefs in the harbor, said Eric Vetter, a professor of oceanography at Hawaii Pacific.
The die-off also could lure predators like sharks, barracuda and eels to the harbor and neighboring Keehi Lagoon, experts warned.
"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," Gill told KHNL.
The Health Department said the tides were bringing the plume into the lagoon and that it would eventually be swept out to sea. Until then, workers were scooping hundreds of dead fish out of the harbor.
"It's really sad to see," boater Russ Singer told KHNL as he filled a bucket with puffer fish, eel, and reef fish in just a few minutes. “I can’t stand looking at it.”
Korsmeyer said marine life would probably repopulate the harbor, after the low-oxygen water moves out, but that could take months or even years.
The Health Department has not decided whether to take action against Matson, which makes weekly runs of molasses from Hawaii’s last sugar plantation to the mainland.
"We have ceased our molasses operation, sealed the pipe and closed all the valves," Hull said. "It's all shut down at the moment.'
Matson said it is investigating how the leak sprung in a section of the pipeline that's not usually used for molasses. Senior Vice President Vince Angoco told the Associated Press there was no response plan in place for a molasses leak but the company was not required to have one.
The company has been operating in Hawaii for more than 130 years and while there have been other underwater leaks, none were of this magnitude, officials said.
"Matson regrets that the incident impacted many harbor users, as well as wildlife,” the company said in a statement. “We take our role as an environmental steward very seriously and have a strong record of leadership in the maritime industry on a number of fronts."
There does not appear to be much precedent for major underwater molasses spills, though 21 people were killed in Boston in 1919 when a tank ruptured and sent 2 million gallons of the stuff roaring through city streets.
First published September 12 2013, 7:13 PM