Bills address spill prevention, molasses lawsuit

Honolulu Star Advertiser - January 28, 2014
Marcel Honores

A group of state legislators called Monday for several molasses spill-related fixes to Hawaii law. Their proposals come as the public continues to wait for more details on what caused last fall's devastating leak of the thick substance into Hono­lulu Harbor — and the full scope of the damage it wreaked on the marine life there.

"Government and industry was unprepared to deal with this freak accident," Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapo­lei-Maka­­kilo) acknowledged during a press conference with Rep. Chris Lee (D, Kai­lua-Lani­kai-Wai­ma­nalo) and about seven other lawmakers at the state Capitol.

Both men, chairmen of the Legislature's environmental committees, toured the harbor days after the spill, which was reported Sept. 9. It dumped 233,000 gallons of molasses, killing thousands of fish and coral in those waters and Keehi Lagoon.

Matson Inc. took responsibility for the incident.

Officials with the shipping company said Monday that they plan to release findings into what led to the disaster — but that they're unable to issue that report while federal and state agencies do their own investigations into the spill.

Lee and Gabbard, meanwhile, said three measures introduced last week would address some basic issues left in the spill's wake.

"There are concrete steps that we can take now to ensure that this never happens again while we wait for investigations to conclude," Lee said. The three bills — HB 2620, HB 2622 and HB 2621, respectively — would:

» Update Hawaii's 1996 state report on oil spills to consider other potential contaminants "that we haven't even thought of yet," Lee said Monday. Some $234,000 would go to the University of Hawaii's Sea Grant College Program to complete the update prior to the Legislature's 2016 session.

» Establish a "coral reef and marine life conservation special fund," used by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, to help conserve and restore damaged marine environments. Dollars collected for violating the state laws protecting these areas would help keep the fund afloat.

» Set time limits to respond to any issues raised between the state and companies that lease its facilities, including those at Hono­lulu Harbor, "so that nothing falls through the cracks," Lee said.

That third proposal, requiring better communication between the state and tenants on its property, comes after the state Department of Transportation revealed its workers had seen molasses leaking from a faulty pipe on two occasions prior to the spill. The second time, in May, state harbor officials did not notify Matson of the leak.

After the spill, the DOT required each of its tenants along the harbors to turn in spill response plans, agency spokes­woman Caro­line Sluy­ter said. DOT has also created a new protocol for its employees to report issues in a timely manner.

A fourth bill, HB 2248, introduced last week by House Speaker Joseph Souki (D, Wai­hee-Wai­ehu-Wai­luku), alludes to an "impending lawsuit by the state against Matson for damages caused by the molasses spill." The measure would provide the attorney general's office with an additional $1 million for expert witnesses in that and other "major" upcoming lawsuits.

While the state has not yet released a final cost estimate on the molasses spill damage, it's expected to "far outweigh" the $7.5 million in damage caused in the 2009 grounding of the cruiser USS Port Royal, according to a fact sheet with Souki's bill.

Souki did not attend Monday's conference.

A federal grand jury subpoenaed Matson in October for documents linked to the spill. The company has emphasized that it has been cooperating with local and federal investigators, including the Justice Department.

The proposed bills could be amended in response to any spill reports released during the legislative session, Lee said. Or, if something "massively substantive" is revealed, then lawmakers might introduce legislation that's subject to the same public hearings and vetting process, he added.

However, it would need to be introduced ahead of the legislative session's end on May 1, he added.

"We have an opportunity to act with the Legislature going into session right now," Lee said. "No matter what those results are … the state has an obligation to move forward and fix the holes in its planning, to make sure our spill response is updated."