It doesn’t measure up to the BP oil spill, but the molasses pipeline leak that caused 233,000 gallons of the viscous substance to ooze into harbor waters near Honolulu on Monday was catastrophic to tropical marine life in that localized area.
Hawaii state officials report the accident happened on Monday when the Matson Navigation shipping company was transferring the gooey stuff from storage tanks onto ships destined for California. Spokesman Jeff Hull said the leak continued until it was repaired by Matson on Tuesday.
According to a report in the Huffington Post, the mess has caused marine life—including tropical fish, turtles, crabs eels and other unknown species right down to microbes—to die by the thousands. More aquatic deaths are expected since there is little to contain the underwater mass from moving out to open waters.
"This is the worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across, and it's fair to say that this is a biggie, if not the biggest, that we've had to confront in the state of Hawaii," Gary Gill, deputy director for the Environmental Health Division of the Health Department, told local reporters.
Like oil, the thick, dark substance is heavier than water, so it dispersed onto the bottom of the harbor floor ensnaring all forms of marine life, causing them literally to drown from lack of oxygen.
Hawaii News Now television station showed underwater video of a ghostly scene through yellowish-tinted water revealing hundreds of dead fish, eels and crabs littered across the ocean floor.
Experts warn that people could be in danger if sharks and bigger predators are drawn into shallower waters by dying and incapacitated fish.
"While molasses is not harmful to the public directly, the substance is polluting the water, causing fish to die and could lead to an increase in predator species," the health department said in a statement Wednesday. "The nutrient-rich liquid could also cause unusual growth in marine algae, stimulate an increase in harmful bacteria and trigger other environmental impacts."
A report in TreeHugger outlined the comparisons of molasses to tar sands:
This is, essentially, the same way tar sands oil or diluted bitumen behaves in water. Because the tar sands are so thick, they are diluted with a cocktail of toxic chemicals, which allows to flow through a pipeline. However, when a spill occurs, the diluents evaporate into the air, leaving behind the thick, heavy and very sticky bitumen, which sinks to the bottom and is not easily skimmed off the top of the water.
Marine life hasn’t been the only victim of accidental molasses spills. There was a huge flood of the thick substance in 1919 in Boston that killed 21 people after a massive storage tank exploded. The accident caused a monster wave of the gooey substance to rush down streets faster than 35 mph, according to Wikipedia.
Gill said over 2,000 dead fish were scooped up by cleanup crews and officials will let nature take its own corrective course. It is predicted the underwater brown plume will stay visible for weeks as currents and tides wash the deadly mess into nearby Keehi Lagoon and out to sea.
It is unclear if Matson will face any fines, but officials say they may have to seek emergency funding if cleanup costs exceed $1 million.