The Worst Thing About Hawaii’s Molasses Spill Isn’t Even the Thousands of Dead Fish

Unlike recent spills of tar sands in Michigan and Arkansas, officials say there is no real possibility of cleaning up the mess in Honolulu Harbor.

Molasses now covers this beautiful ocean floor in Hawaii. (Photo: Maya de Almelda Araujo / Getty Images)

Sep 16, 2013· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

UPDATE: September, 16, 2013—4:24 PM PST

Matt Cox, the CEO of Matson Navigation, apologized for the molasses spill and said the company "will fully pay for cleanup and other costs without passing them on to taxpayers or customers," reports the Associated Press.

It has been roughly a week since a massive river of molasses poured into Hawaii's Honolulu Harbor—233,000 gallons of brown, sticky liquid awfulness—and the spill is now being called the worst environmental disaster in the state's history.

Thousands of fish have been killed and swimmers and surfers are being warned to stay out of the ocean due to the allure of all those dead fish for sharks.

The 1,400 tons of molasses, enough to overflow an Olympic-sized swimming pool, leaked from a pipeline used to load ships and has created its own kind of dead zone, killing everything around, from fish to coral.

The worst thing? Unlike recent spills of tar sands in Michigan and Arkansas, in Hawaii there is no real possibility of cleaning up the mess. Despite initial attempts by the Coast Guard to use vacuums, today they are no longer even trying.

Unlike oil, which floats, the heavy molasses sinks to the bottom, coating the seafloor.

"The sugary goo will eventually leave the harbor naturally, but that could take years. Algae will keep depleting oxygen as they digest the molasses, and the harbor's lack of strong ocean currents means the sludge won't be churned out to sea quickly," writes Mother Nature Network.

After taking a firsthand look, local dive-shop owner Roger White recorded what he saw on video and told NBC: "Everything that was underwater suffocated. Everything climbed out of its hole and the whole bottom was covered with fish, crabs, lobsters, worms, sea fans—anything that was down there was dead."

There is little precedent for major molasses spills and pursuant cleanup efforts; a report from 1919 tells of a ruptured tank in Boston sending two million gallons of the sticky goo into the streets at 35 miles per hour, killing 21 people.

The ironic part of the story? The state of Hawaii will pay for the cleanup, not Matson Navigation, the shipping company whose broken pipes caused the problem in the first place.