Hugh Gentry / Reuters
A dead fish lies on the shore in Keehi Lagoon on Sept. 12 after a massive molasses spill from a Matson cargo ship in Honolulu, Hawaii.
HONOLULU -- On two occasions since last year, state inspectors saw molasses dripping from the same spot where a pipe leaked up to 1,400 tons of the sugary substance into Honolulu Harbor earlier this month and killed thousands of fish.
Department of Transportation Deputy Director Randy Grune told a news conference Friday he sent a letter in July 2012 to Matson Navigation Co. notifying the company of the leak. The letter, provided to reporters Friday, asked Matson to tell the state when the pipeline was repaired.
Vic Angoco, Matson's senior vice president for Pacific operations, said the company responded by inspecting the pipeline twice — at high and low tide — but didn't see any molasses leaking. The company also didn't see any molasses in the water, he said.
More than 26,000 fish and other marine species in Honolulu Harbor suffocated and died as the molasses spread and sank to the ocean floor about 5 miles west of Waikiki's hotels and beaches. The spill happened in an industrial area of Honolulu Harbor west of downtown, where Matson loads molasses and other goods for shipping.
Grune said the inspector saw the leak while looking for storm water discharge. Harbor tenants are responsible for inspecting their own pipelines, not the Transportation Department, Grune said.
A separate state crew in the harbor noticed molasses dripping in May, but Grune said the department didn't tell Matson.
Grune blamed the department's failure to notify Matson of the second instance on a "breakdown in our procedures and practices." The department needs to improve on this, he said.
Angoco said the company didn't have a plan to respond to a molasses spill — despite being notified of the dripping pipe last year — because molasses is an unregulated product.
"That being said, in hindsight, now we need to look at what happened, how it happened, move forward and you can bet we're going to develop a response plan for molasses should we continue to move molasses in the future," Angoco said.
Grune said the department will require harbor tenants to inspect their pipelines and have a spill response plan for all products.
The molasses fish kill in Hawaii is even worse than expected, according to state Health Department officials and marine biologists. And, new video shot underwater shows even more marine life in peril. KNHL's Ben Gutierrez reports.
It will also ask tenants to let the department know the date of their most recent inspections, the inspection findings and the status of any fixes that need to be made, he said.
"Although Matson has taken responsibility for the spill, DOT is looking for ways to tighten up the checks and balances in the system that can help prevent another incident of this type," Grune said.
Gary Gill, state Department of Health deputy director, said he recently heard about similar spills in other states, like when large numbers of fish died after a highway tanker discharged corn syrup into a river.
Gill said he expects a national review of such "food handling infrastructure" to be conducted to determine whether any new state or federal regulations might be needed.
Federal and state officials have largely relied on natural water currents and weather to dilute and flush the molasses out of the harbor and a nearby lagoon. About 233,000 gallons of the sugary substance spilled — equivalent to what would fill about seven rail cars or about one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Gill said Friday oxygen levels in the water are returning to normal.
Keehi Lagoon and other nearby waters are scheduled to reopen to the public for recreation and other uses Saturday, officials from the Department of Land and Natural Resources said.
Matson learned about the spill Sept. 9 from a neighbor, one day after the shipping company finished pumping molasses to a boat leaving for Oakland, Calif. It discovered the molasses oozed out from a section of pipe it thought had been sealed off.
The company and state officials were unprepared, with no contingency plans for what to do in case of a molasses spill. Matson and state officials have said they maintain plans for spills of more hazardous substances like oil or fuel, but not for molasses, which acts differently and is more difficult to clean up. Matson has loaded and transported molasses at the harbor for about 30 years.
Matson has said it will fully pay for cleanup and other costs without passing them on to taxpayers or by raising shipping rates on customers.
Matson ships molasses from Hawaii to the mainland about once a week. Molasses is a made at Hawaii's last sugar plantation, run by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on Maui.