A year after molasses spill, damage estimates are still secret - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

A year after molasses spill, damage estimates are still secret

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

A year after the massive molasses spill that killed thousands of fish and caused significant coral damage in and around Honolulu Harbor, molasses still sits in the pipes and tanks there and damage estimates remain a secret.

On Sept. 9, 2013, more than 220,000 gallons of molasses that was supposed to be pumped onto a Matson ship spilled into Honolulu Harbor. The spill fouled the water for weeks and killed at least 25,000 fish and also badly damaged many coral reefs in the harbor and surrounding waters.

"No molasses has moved in or out of the harbor in the last year,” said Gary Gill, deputy state health director of environmental health. “However there is still molasses stored in the tanks there and in the pipes. So that is yet to be resolved."

The state Attorney General's office said it has made "significant progress" after hiring private attorneys for a lengthy legal claims process with Matson to pay for the spill early this year. But dollar and damage estimates have remained secret as both sides try to settle the claims without costly and time-consuming litigation.

Both sides have exchanged thousands of pages of documents and evidence while studies and analysis are currently ongoing, a statement by the AG's office said.“Matson continues to cooperate with the state and has been forthcoming in producing information requested by the state,” the AG statement said.

Environmental groups are not happy."We're disappointed that we've taken so long and we really don't know anything,” said Anthony Aalto, Oahu group chair of the Sierra Club. “We're still in the dark. We don't even know the extent of the damage."In a statement, the state Department of Transportation said its Harbor's Division "continues to work with its sister agencies, harbor tenants, and stakeholders to first prevent spills and second, to quickly identify and stop any future pipeline leaks into the harbor."

Since the spill a year ago, the state says its harbor tenants have been required to provide certification that their pipelines are inspected and maintained properly and all of them have since complied, the state DOT said.

State Harbor's personnel and harbor tenants have been provided additional training on proper spill response notifications and protocol.The deputy health director admits there are many unanswered scientific questions."To this day, we don't know how the molasses was so toxic in the marine environment," Gill said. "How could we in the future respond to such a spill and try and protect the marine life? As of now, we really don't have any more information on that today than we did a year ago."

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office could not provide an estimate when the legal claims process is expected to wrap up. 

One important deadline is Dec. 1, when the administration of Gov. Neil Abercrombie will be replaced with a new governor and new department heads, who could bring a new strategy in dealing with the spill's aftermath.

Gill said he hopes the financial settlement with Matson will include money to study ways to prevent environmental damage from molasses "We'll get the funding to do the science so that we in Hawaii, the rest of the United States and even the world will be better prepared should such a spill like this happen again," Gill said.

If the state and Matson are unable to agree on a settlement, the case could go to trial.Aalto, of the Sierra Club, said, "We would like to see something in place that ensures one, that this sort of thing doesn't happen again in the future and two, that polluters are held accountable."

Aalto said he's concerned the state will negotiate a settlement in secret and then announce it without the opportunity for the public to see if it's in the public interest.One analysis estimated Matson's expected bill for the spill could range anywhere from $80 to $400 million.The state made similar environmental claims against the U.S. Navy after the guided-missile cruiser the U.S.S. Port Royal ran aground on a reef in 2009. The Navy settled with the state for $8.5 million.

The Bingham, McCutchen law firm, experts in environmental law hired by the state, will be paid either 15 percent of the money it collects for the molasses damage or $695 an hour, whichever amount is larger, the AG's office said.

The mainland law firm has experience handling some of the cases arising from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of New Mexico.

A separate federal grand jury criminal investigation is underway in the case. It's unclear when and if the grand jury will hand up indictments.

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