Matson to pay millions to settle claims from 2013 molasses spill

Matson Navigation Co. must pay $6.5 million in fines and compensation plus as much as $9.5 million for infrastructure removal after 233,000 gallons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor in September 2013.

While molasses was being pumped into SS Maui from the tank farm at Sand Island Terminal, a crewmember of the ship noticed a difference between the volumes being pumped and received, but longshoremen thought the Pneumercator measuring instrument was faulty. The crewmember inspected the water around the ship but could not see any pollution. A containership moored nearby blocked the view of the pipe under the pier.

Two days later, molasses was observed in the harbor. The leak was found in an elbow pipe, operations stopped, the leak was plugged and the pipe capped. The state and the company said between 25,000 and 26,000 fish were killed. Thousands of coral were found damaged.

In its own report on the incident, Matson said it was told of a pipeline leak by the state Department of Transportation almost a year before the incident.

“Matson employees … searched for the leak on two occasions, at low and high tide, but did not locate any leak,” the company report said. Four months before the incident, according to the report, “Harbors Division staff and consultants observed a molasses leak from the same pipe … but did not inform Matson.”

The report emphasizes a study of the harbor a year before the accident by marine biologist Dr. Steven Dollar, much of which covered the area of the spill. This noted that coral and water conditions were in a fairly poor state already due to runoffs from farming and housing as well as port operations and storms.

The study noted the “existence of large, but completely dead” coral remains, and that events “have occurred throughout the harbor that elevated stress to the point of complete mortality of living communities.”

A consultant hired by Matson found that there were 17,000 corals “recently dead.” The Matson report stated: “Because there are always recently dead corals in any colony, it is not possible to exactly determine what portion of the 17,000 corals died shortly before the incident and what portion were impacted by the incident.”

Dollar told Professional Mariner that the harbor is not a natural coral reef and that corals were attaching themselves to piers, pilings and other manmade objects. “The water quality there is not the best either,” he said. “Many of the corals showed signs of stress from the existing environmental conditions.”

Matson said water conditions returned to normal 10 days after the spill. Studies a year later “showed that the benthic community in the harbor is restored and thriving.”

Investigations into the spill could extend the legal maneuvering over the accident.

The state commissioned a local marine consultancy, AECOS, to make an environmental and damage analysis after the spill. Joshua Wisch, a spokesman for the state’s Attorney General’s Office, said the report “is a confidential work product prepared in anticipation of litigation, so we cannot provide it.”

The settlement with Hawaii officials was announced in July 2015. So far, agreements with the state and federal authorities provide for Matson to pay $400,000 in fines plus $600,000 in restitution to Waikiki Aquarium and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii for two misdemeanor violations of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. Another $5.9 million will be paid to the state as full payment for all claims brought by the state. Immediately after the spill, a claim process was set up for people and businesses affected, with a total of $232,000 having been paid out.

On top of this, Matson is taking out all the equipment, infrastructure and piping of the molasses operation, which is estimated to cost between $5.5 million and $9.5 million. Matson spokesman Keoni Wagner said the work should be finished late in 2016.

A decision still has to be made about 890,000 gallons stored at the tank farm. The underground piping will be used as electrical conduits.

By Professional Mariner Staff