A decade ago, spill in Kahului Harbor received little fanfare

A molasses spill – on a smaller scale than the one at Honolulu Harbor last week – occurred at Kahului Harbor a decade ago to much less hype and environmental concern.

The 233,000 gallons of molasses that spilled into Honolulu Harbor on Sept. 9 was produced by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., the last sugar plantation in the state, and shipped to Oahu. Thousands of fish and other sea life have been killed by the spill, which has triggered a multiagency governmental response.

On Dec. 8, 2003, about 50,000 gallons of molasses spilled into Kahului Harbor due to a broken pipeline, according to reports in The Maui News the next day. The spill occurred at night and initially went unnoticed until the amounts of molasses pumped and taken aboard the Haleakala barge did not jibe in a reconciliation report.

The response from the Health Department to the spill was that molasses was not a pollutant, would mix with ocean water and be flushed out of the harbor, especially under winter storm conditions, the old Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported. A Health Department official at the time said it did not appear that there would be any long-term damage to harbor waters.

Rick Volner, HC&S general manager, said Tuesday in an email that the entire molasses pipeline that runs along or near the pier was replaced in 2007-08. He said that the pipeline is “in good condition” and is regularly inspected by Kahului Trucking & Storage, which manages the loading of molasses at the harbor.

HC&S and Kahului Trucking are both subsidiaries of Alexander & Baldwin. Matson, which has taken responsibility for the Honolulu Harbor spill, used to be a subsidiary of A&B but recently split off into its own publicly traded company.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said that her department sent personnel Friday to conduct a visual inspection of the Kahului Harbor molasses pipeline “as a precaution” following the Honolulu Harbor spill.

Sluyter said that much of the line is underground and under the pier and encased in cement, but that a visual check turned up no leaks.

Although it is the tenant’s responsibility to maintain and inspect their facilities and pipelines, Sluyter said that the Transportation Department is looking at its policies and procedures in light of the molasses spill at Honolulu Harbor.

There was another molasses spill at Kahului Harbor in November 1998, but that one did not reach the ocean. A leaking tank spilled 300,000 gallons of sticky, brown molasses on Hobron Lane on Nov. 2, 1998, The Maui News reported.

HC&S reported producing 50,480 tons, or 8.4 million gallons, of molasses last year, down from 52,800 tons, or 8.8 million gallons, in 2010.

Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar milling process and is produced by HC&S in quantities greater than can be consumed and used in Hawaii, explained Volner.

“As a result, HC&S needs to ship its molasses off-island and has a long-standing practice of selling it as a cattle feed additive through a distributor on the West Coast,” he said.

A&B officials did not want to discuss possible reimbursement by Matson for the loss of the molasses. Neither did Matson spokesman Jeff Hull, who said Tuesday that he could not comment on recovery of losses by HC&S.

“We are focused on the response effort,” he said.

When asked whether the promise made by Matson’s Chief Executive Officer Matt Cox on Monday to fully pay for the cleanup and recovery might also extend to losses by HC&S, Hull emphasized twice that Cox meant recovery and cleanup costs only.

Hull later provided a number for those who have claims for damage from the Honolulu Harbor molasses spill, (808) 848-8300, and said that HC&S could file a claim if it feels as though it has been impacted.

Matson has received a dozen or so claims so far but not from HC&S, he said.

Cox said that he was sorry for the spill and that the company would not pass the cost of the cleanup and recovery on to taxpayers or customers.

“We’ve let you down, and we’re very sorry,” Cox said after taking a tour of the harbor.

Matson will not be shipping molasses until it is confident a similar spill will not occur, he said; a sentiment echoed by HC&S.

“HC&S has temporarily suspended shipments until the molasses can again be shipped safely to market,” a statement from HC&S said.

The spill at Honolulu Harbor happened in an industrial area west of downtown, where Matson loads molasses and other goods for shipping. Some 233,000 gallons of molasses spilled from a leaky pipe as the gooey substance was moved from storage tanks to ships sailing to California.

In other developments, Hawaii U.S. Sen Brian Schatz will host a constituent call, open to the news media and public, on the federal response to the molasses spill at 12:15 p.m. today.

On the call will be Schatz; Keith Kawaoka, Health Department Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office; Steven Wheeler, of the U.S. Coast Guard chief of response for the Honolulu sector; Dean Higuchi, of the Environmental Protection Agency; Ruth Yender, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientific support coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration; and Kevin Foster, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service marine ecology specialist.

The call-in number is (877) 353-4701.

Also, the state Department of Health has implemented an incident command system to further organize the response to the molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor. An incident command post has been established at the Clean Islands Council facility near Sand Island.

The command consists of members from the state departments of Health, Land and Natural Resources and Transportation; Matson; the Coast Guard; EPA; NOAA; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The command has drafted and approved an action plan, which outlines key objectives of the response and provides direction to participants.

“The organization of all the federal, state and local agencies utilizing the incident command system is a major step in ensuring a single and focused effort to the issue at hand,” said Kawaoka, the incident commander. “Each agency has brought in its most experienced staff from around the country, and I am confident they will work together to develop appropriate solutions to the problem.”

* The Associated Press contributed to this report. Lee Imada can be reached at