Hawaiian Molasses Spill: Cleanup As Slow As

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Fukushima's radioactive water leaks may be scarier, but in terms of outright deadliness to aquatic life, the Honolulu Harbor molasses leak may have it beat.

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The brown plume of the sticky stuff was seen Monday and Tuesday after 1,400 tons (about 233,000 gallons) of the sugar processing byproduct leaked from a shipping container on Sunday. It spread from Sand Island into Ke’ehi Lagoon (pictured above) and quickly sank to the bottom of the industrial bay, where it started robbing the water of oxygen and smothering animal life.

Images of vast numbers of dead fish, eels crabs and other sea life have been posted, while work crews have been kept busy gathering and disposing of dead fish in order to minimize the impacts of the mass die off and not turn the place into a buffet for sharks.

Dead fish picked up on the beach at Ke’ehi Lagoon.
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Despite the apparent novelty of the disaster, however, it is not unprecedented. In July a similar spill into a reservoir in the Mexican state of Jalisco wiped out 500 metric tons of fish. There, the loss of fish caused immediate and continuing hardships to fishermen and local eateries that relied on the fish for their fare.

In Honolulu Bay, the oxygen-deprived bottom-dwelling fish have been seen coming to the surface, away from the molasses, attempting to find more "breathable" water, reported Ruth Yender of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration. The State of Hawaii Department of Health Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office (HEER) has taken the lead on responding to the spill, she explained, because unlike oil, molasses is not classified as a hazardous material.

Ultimately, the solution to the leak and fish die off will be for the molasses to be flushed out of the harbor and out to sea, where it will be diluted and degraded into harmless compounds. To flush out the harbor will require a lot of rain, however. Dilution is also the reason that the radiation levels from the Fukushina leaks are not considered a problem beyond the immediate area where the water leaked.

Sadly, there is no sign that Honolulu Harbor is going to be flushed out soon, said HEER communications officer Janice Okubo.

"Unfortunately it's very sunny and not raining," she told Discovery News on Thursday.

"With the weak and variable tidal currents in the local area, and no significant rainfall in the forecast, (NOAA) expects that the contaminated water may require a week or longer to completely flush out of the Honolulu Harbor and Ke’ehi Lagoon," Yender reported.

In the meantime, scientists will be monitoring dissolved oxygen levels and keeping their fingers crossed.