What Oil Companies Can Learn From The Response To A Massive Molasses Spill In Hawaii



CREDIT: Hawaii News Now

One of the worst environmental disasters in Hawaii’s history — one that so far has killed more than 26,000 fish and destroyed swaths of coral reef — could have something to teach the fossil fuel industry.

The company responsible for a massive molasses spill in Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor earlier this month, Matson, Inc., has pledged to pay entirely for response efforts and has promised the people of Hawaii that they won’t see any costs from the spill. More surprisingly, the company’s president has said that if an investigation doesn’t reveal the cause of the spill, the company is prepared to fully halt its molasses operation.

It was a leak in a pipeline transporting molasses to a Matson Navigation ship that caused 1,400 tons — 233,000 gallons — of thick molasses to spill into the Honolulu Harbor on Sept. 9. The spill has been labeled among the worst — if not the worst — environmental disaster Hawaii’s ever had to deal with. Even worse, though Matson’s pledged to pay all response costs of the spill, there isn’t a coordinated cleanup effort — since molasses sinks to the bottom rather than floating on top of the water like oil, much of the molasses, which has blanketed the sea floor, will be left to dissipate on its own.

Matthew Cox, president and CEO of Matson, which is largest shipper of goods between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, said this week that his company has ceased all molasses operations and won’t start them again until the company is “completely sure” a spill will not happen again.

“If it is determined that the current system cannot be repaired or it’s not feasible to replace the system, we’re prepared to discontinue our molasses operation,” Cox said. “If it takes a week, a month, a year, 10 years, we’re going to be here until this is made right, and we need to be comfortable that this is never going to happen again.”

That’s something, of course, no oil company has ever promised to do after a spill — to halt their drilling, shipping or tar sands extraction operations if it can’t find the source of a spill. The U.S. hasn’t seen a molasses spill since 1919, but in 2012 alone, there were 6,000 spills and mishaps reported at onshore oil and gas sites.

Matson, of course, is right to take responsibility: it had no response plan for the possibility of a molasses spill in the harbor, and there was little federal oversight of the company’s molasses operation.

But Matson’s response is notable for how much it differs from the responses of oil companies after a spill. Soon after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward downplayed the environmental consequences the spill, calling the amount of oil released “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean.” Later, the CEO lamented the spill’s affect on Gulf residents, but said he, for one, “would like my life back.”

After its pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark. in March, Exxon also downplayed the environmental effects of the spill, saying wildlife casualties were mostly limited to “reptiles, particularly venomous snakes,” and placed the blame on manufacturing defects in the pipeline, rather than take responsibility for the spill itself. Exxon also was exempt from paying taxes on the spill’s cleanup due to a law that states tar sands aren’t classified as oil.

Matson, on the other hand, has acknowledged its role in the destruction of the harbor’s ecosystem.

“Matson has been serving Hawaii for 131 years. We’re from Hawaii. We love Hawaii. We consider ourselves stewards of the land and stewards of the ocean, and we failed in that responsibility last week because of this spill.”

The molasses has caused major damage to the ecosystem, absorbing the oxygen in the water and suffocating the diverse sea life and delicate coral reefs that lives in the harbor. Divers have documented and pulled up dead puffer fish, eel, and reef fish from the area.

“The entire bottom is covered with dead fish” diver Roger White told Hawaii News Now after surveying the harbor’s floor. “Small fish, crabs, mole crabs, eels. Every type of fish that you don’t usually see, but now they’re dead. Now they’re just laying there. Every single thing is dead.”

The disaster should serve as a wake-up call to Matson and other companies that aren’t prepared for the chance that their operations could falter and cause damage to the environment. And Matson’s response to the spill should be monitored to make sure the company doesn’t go back on its word to conduct an investigation into the cause of the spill, make the findings public, and cease operations if the cause isn’t found. But this could also serve as an example to oil companies, whose pipelines, drilling and shipping equipment have failed far more regularly than molasses operations have and who have been slow in the past in accepting responsibility for their spills.

In the meantime, the Department of Health has warned Hawaiians to stay away from Honolulu Harbor because the dead fish could attract predators like “sharks, barracuda and eels.”