Over the course of two days in September 2013, 882,000 liters of molasses (the equivalent of more than 5,500 barrels of oil) was discharged into Honolulu Harbor. A corroded valve resulted in thousands of acres of polluted water that suffocated marine life and severely damaged or killed existing coral. Matson Navigation Company was identified as the responsible party, and the ensuing legal case is known as Matson, Inc. v. State of Hawaii. The massive environmental and social consequences, newly established legal precedents, civil settlements, and criminal verdicts resulting from this incident provide many layers and intricacies to explore. In this case study, researchers Rachael Han and Amarjit Singh provide a comprehensive, detailed overview of the incident, from the events leading up to the spill to its final implications.  

The authors detail the environmental and social impacts and the legal and financial implications of the spill and spill response, as well as identify the avoidable causes of the spill. Their research published in the Journal of Legal Affairs and Dispute Resolution in Engineering and Construction, “Analysis and Overview of a Harbor Molasses Spill,” will help guide both sides, private businesses and government agencies, to facilitate transparency and communication and ultimately prevent future environmental disasters. Their paper is available at https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)LA.1943-4170.0000539. The abstract is below.        


Matson Navigation Company had been shipping molasses from Maui to Honolulu Harbor for 30 years, once a week, when in September 2013, 1,400 tons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor by way of a corroded pipe. This spill was not discovered until September 9 and resulted in the death of all marine life in the area due to deoxygenation, as discovered by divers. At the time, molasses was unregulated and therefore spill response plans were not required. The following year, Matson pleaded guilty in a federal court to violating 33 United States Code 407, the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899. Then, 2 years later, in July 2015, Matson paid the State of Hawai‘i a $15.4 million settlement in the forms of cash, restoration, and funding of environmental programs. In 2017, the EPA charged Matson with a civil settlement, marking the end of all criminal and civil cases against Matson. As a result of this incident, Hawai‘i DOT (HDOT) requires all businesses using port pipelines to provide documentation of pipeline inspections and spill response plans to prevent future environmental and economic disasters. This paper summarizes events associated with the spill and discusses the statute used to prosecute Matson, the spill’s impact, and the handling of the spill response. Using primary and secondary sources from library and online searches, the authors identify breakdowns in protocol and conclude that the spill could have been prevented if Matson and Hawai‘i Department of Transportation had communicated more effectively. 

Read the paper in ASCE Library: https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)LA.1943-4170.0000539