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Sticky situation: Hawaii molasses spill killing thousands of fish

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The molasses fish kill in Hawaii is even worse than expected, according to state Health Department officials and marine biologists. And, new video shot underwater shows even more marine life in peril. The molasses fish kill in Hawaii is even worse than expected, according to state Health Department officials and marine biologists. And, new video shot underwater shows even more marine life in peril.

By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News

(NBC) - A massive spill of thick molasses has turned Honolulu Harbor into a watery wasteland, with divers reporting that thousands of fish have been suffocated and environmentalists calling it a disaster.

"There's nothing alive there at all," diver Roger White told NBC affiliate KHNL after making a seven-minute video of dead sea life blanketing the bottom of the harbor.

"Everything is dead. They're all dead and they're all just lying across the bottom -- hundreds and hundreds, thousands."

A pipeline running from storage tanks to ships spewed up to 233,000 gallons of molasses – enough to fill one-third of an Olympic-size pool – into the water on Monday.

The shipping company, Matson Navigation, said the leak was repaired on Tuesday, but there's nothing it can do to clean up the mess.

"Unlike with an oil spill, it's a sugar product so it will dissipate on its own," Matson spokesman Jeff Hull told NBC News on Thursday. "There's not an active cleanup."

State officials said the thick substance swamping the harbor and turning the water brown has already wreaked havoc with marine life, making it difficult for fish and other creatures to breathe.

The die-off could lure predators like sharks, barracuda and eels to the harbor and neighboring Keehi Lagoon and cause a spike in algae and bacteria, they said.

"This is the worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across, and it's fair to say 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 KHNL.

The Health Department said the tides were bringing the plume into the lagoon and that it would eventually be swept out to sea.

Dr. David Field, a visiting assistant professor of marine sciences at Hawaii Pacific University, said the process would be slowed by the lack of circulation in the bay. He was also concerned that the molasses could affect the South Shore reefs as it spreads out.

In the short term, state officials and boaters were scooping hundreds of dead fish out of the harbor.

"It's really sad to see," said Russ Singer, who filled a bucket with puffer fish, eel, and reef fish in a few minutes. "I can't stand looking at it."

The Health Department has not decided whether to take action against Matson, which makes weekly runs of molasses from Hawaii's last sugar plantation to the mainland.

Matson said it is investigating how the pipeline sprung a leak, cooperating with state officials, and taking to steps to guard against future spills.

"We have ceased our molasses operation, sealed the pipe and closed all the valves," Hull said. "It's all shut down at the moment.'

He said the company has been serving Hawaii for more than 130 years.  While there have been other underwater leaks, none were of this magnitude.

"Matson regrets that the incident impacted many harbor users, as well as wildlife," the company said in a statement. "We take our role as an environmental steward very seriously and have a strong record of leadership in the maritime industry on a number of fronts."

There does not appear to be much precedent for major underwater molasses spills, though 21 people were killed in Boston in 1919 when a tank ruptured and sent 2 million gallons of the stuff roaring through city streets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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