Honolulu Harbor Molasses Spill Sparks Legislation

Honolulu Civil Beat - January 27, 2014
Sophie Cocke

Hawaii lawmakers have proposed a number of bills this year aimed at making sure Hawaii is better prepared to deal with a toxic spill in the wake of the September molasses leak at Honolulu Harbor that killed thousands of fish and devastated coral reefs.

A ruptured pipeline caused a quarter million gallons of molasses to spill into the harbor, sparking intense public scrutiny of Matson shipping company as well as state agencies charged with regulating the harbor, in particular the Hawaii Department of Transportation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Hawaii Department of Health are currently investigating the spill. And Matson was served with a federal grand jury subpoena in October for documents relating to the accident.

In the meantime, lawmakers say that their bills will improve the state's emergency response plans, as well as tighten the reporting and oversight responsibilities of state agencies involved in marine spills.

"While the investigation continues, here are some concrete steps we can take to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, who has proposed three bills relating to the spill.

Response to Matson Spill Lacking

It's been nearly two decades since Hawaii came up with a plan to address hazardous spills, according a bill jointly proposed by Lee and Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee. And that plan only deals with oil spills, not the medley of other substances that are transported in and out of Hawaii's harbors, such as molasses.

Health officials blamed the relatively slow response to the Honolulu Harbor disaster on the fact that Hawaii had no response plan for molasses.

House Bill 2620, and Senate Bill 3016 allocates $234,000 to the University of Hawaii's Sea Grant program to update its document, titled "Hawaii's Readiness to Prevent and Respond to Oil Spills," which has served as the foundation for the state's emergency response planning since the mid-1990s.

The report would be expanded to include risk assessments, as well as spill prevention and mitigation plans, for a variety of toxic substances. UH staff would also update maps detailing critical facilities and marine hazards.

"In September 2013, Hawaii experienced an example of the potential impacts from a spill when hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses were spilled into Honolulu Harbor," according to the legislation. "News of the spill spread globally, which further highlights the need to prepare a spill prevention plan."

The bill warns of the "dire economic and environmental consequences" of hazardous spills. In the 1990s, the University of Hawaii estimated that there would be economic losses of $6.8 billion if a major oil spill hit the beaches of Waikiki.

Another joint bill ensures that any fines or legal settlements from marine disasters go directly toward enhancing Hawaii's coral reefs. The bill sets up a special fund within the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources that can't be tapped for other purposes.

Lee has also introduced a measure that would ensure timely communication between state departments and lessees. It turned out that the Department of Transportation had known that Matson had a leaking molasses pipeline prior to the September spill, but that steps weren't taken to fix it.

Under House Bill 2621, contracts between state agencies and lessees would specify a strict timeframe under which such problems must be communicated.

Another bill, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, would ensure that operators such as Matson pay for all damages caused by toxic spills. In past months, Matson representatives have said that the company will pay for the molasses cleanup effort, but haven't committed to covering long-term environmental damages.

Senate Bill 2018 specifies that parties "have unlimited liability for all damages resulting from any spill or incurred by the state in responding to a release or threatened release of oil, hazardous substances, or unnatural or artificial substances."

"It's just trying to make sure that whoever creates the disaster, that they make sure they pay for all of it and that the state or taxpayers are not going to be on the hook for someone else's mistake," said Dela Cruz.

Conspicuously missing from this year's proposals are bills seeking significant changes at the transportation department, which struggled in the aftermath of the molasses spill to respond to media questions regarding its oversight responsibilities of the harbor.

House Transportation Committee Chair Ryan Yamane could not be reached for comment, while Sen. Kalani English, chair of the Senate's Transportation and International Affairs Committee, said that he didn't intend to introduce any bills related to the transportation department.

English said that he wanted to wait for the investigations to conclude first. "If you are jumping into a black hole, you want to know what is in the hole," he said.