What they have in Common
When Molasses isn't Sweet
At the same time the world's eyes are focused on reports of radioactive contamination of the ocean from Fukushima, news of a very different kind of threat to sealife has crossed my desk--pollution from an accidental release of molasses from a leak in a molasses pipeline.
Yes, molasses. It sounds a bit like a joke, but the reports from Hawaii about a spill of molasses into Honolulu Harbor sound remarkably similar to the stories coming out of Japan, or the stories that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill--thousands of dead fish, long-term effects, impacts on neighboring reefs, an increase in predator fish (replacing the dead fish), unusual growth in marine algae (due to the nutrient-rich liquid) with perhaps unanticipated environmental effects, and warnings not to swim or eat the fish. Gary Gill, the Deputy Director of Hawaii's Department of Health, terms this, "The worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across...this is a biggie if not the biggest that we've had to confront in the state of Hawaii."
Some of the reasons for the concerns are different--the long-term effects near the spill are due to limited water circulation in the bay delaying the flushing out of the contamination (although, when it does spread, it would still affect the nearby reefs); and the warnings against swimming and eating the fish are not because the molasses itself is harmful, but rather because of the possible increase in predator fish (for swimmers) and the possible growth of harmful bacteria and other substances in these conditions.
All of this is not to suggest that we should ban molasses or create a Molasses Regulatory Agency. It is a reminder that it is not only "unnatural" activities such as oil drilling and large, centralized power plants that have the potential to cause harm. A lot of human industry today, even that related to food production and processing, has the potential to have serious impacts on the environment--and ultimately, to our own well-being.
Short of returning to subsistence farming--which I don't see happening, and which, of course, would come with its own set of environmental impacts anyway--we need to understand that anything spilled into our lakes and rivers and oceans in large quantity will affect the water, even things that are "natural" and nourishing, anything we eject into the air in large quantity will affect the air, and anything we produce leaves behind some residual waste products.
While two major accidents in 100 years may not seem like much, it seems that the molasses industry may need to learn some lessons from those who operate gas and oil pipelines, from the clean-up effort from Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, and from other large industrial activities.