Hawaii lawmakers urge changes after molasses spill

Hawaii lawmakers urge changes after molasses spill
Molasses spill viewed from above
Molasses spill viewed from above

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly five months after 233,000 gallons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor, state and federal investigations are ongoing with no end in sight -- but state legislators want to take action now to prevent being caught off guard without a contingency plan ever again.

House and Senate lawmakers have introduced a series of bills they say, regardless of investigation results, will establish a concrete emergency response and reporting plan and set clear oversight responsibilities for state agencies involved in harbor spills.

"The investigation continues, but in the meantime there are concrete steps we can begin to take to ensure avoidable disasters like this never happen again," said Representative Chris Lee (D – Kailua, Lanikai, Waimanalo), who introduced the bills.

House bill 2622 would establish a special fund for the Marine Life Conservation Program within the Department of Land and Natural Resources, effective July 1, 2014.  It would require 100% of all settlement money, whether court ordered or even donated, to be used for reef restoration.

House bill 2620 would require the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program to update the state's emergency spill response, which officials say hasn't been reviewed since it was rolled out in 1996.

A third proposal, House bill 2621, seems directly aimed at the fact both the state Department of Transportation and Matson reportedly knew about the leaking molasses pipe for more than a year prior to the spill.

"There's going to be a clear requirement that there's a window of time that issues that are raised will have to be responded to so that nothing falls through the cracks – so that both the state and it's leases are aware of what's going on with either end and can respond appropriately and there's accountability built in," said Lee, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection committee.

Despite many unanswered questions, legislators say the bills spearhead a critical conversation.

"Amongst the industry, the government, environmental groups and the public as to what we can do to make sure that this does not happen again.  The bottom line is that government and industry was unprepared to deal with this freak accident," described Senator Mike Gabbard (D – Kapoleo, Makakilo), who chairs the Senate committee on Energy and Environment.

Lawmakers say, in an unusual move, the state attorney general has also requested around $3 million in resources to address potential lawsuits against Matson in the future, pending the results of the Environmental Protection Agency and state investigations.

"It sounds like the [state] Attorney General is coming in this legislative session to get resources so that way just in case they have to go into a civil lawsuit to deal with damages or ensure changes are done that they have this option to them," explained Representative Ryan Yamane (D – Mililani, Waipio, Waikele), who chairs the House committee on Transportation.

Dean Higuchi, the EPA Hawaii spokesman, says an investigation is on-going and is being reviewed as a potential enforcement case with the possibility for fines.

Matson's regional spokesperson, Jeff Hull, confirms the shipping company is no longer moving molasses in the state. Hull says Matson has spent $1.3 million so far  in clean-up response related to the September spill.

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