Massive Molasses Mess and the Laboratory Response

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By Megan Latshaw, Director, Environmental Health Program, APHL

“It was shocking because the entire bottom is covered with dead fish. Small fish, crabs, mole crabs, eels. Every type of fish that you don’t usually see, but now they’re dead. Now they’re just laying there. Every single thing is dead. We’re talking in the hundreds, thousands. I didn’t see one single living thing underwater.” ~ Roger White, a diver (Massive Molasses Spill Devastates Honolulu Marine Life, NPR)

Massive Molasses Mess and the Laboratory Response) | www.aphlblog.org

We’ve all heard of killing someone with kindness, but who knew that sweetness could deal such destruction? The sweetness comprises almost 250,000 gallons of molasses, spilled into Honolulu harbor on September 9th as it was being loaded into a ship via pipeline.

Because the greatest priority relates to public health, the Hawaii Department of Health is leading the response rather than the US Environmental Protection Agency or the US Coast Guard.

Their State Laboratories Division will be doing bacteria testing (enterococci, clostridium and total).  Since this spill is relatively unprecedented the first two bacterial tests were chosen because 1) Hawaii has a lot of data on them and 2) they are currently used to monitor water quality. Scientists are not sure how the spill will affect these indicators but they theorize that the dead fish and the nutrient-rich liquid could lead to unusual growth in marine algae and harmful bacteria. These data plus some chemistry and physical parameters will help them figure out when things are starting to get back to normal.

Meanwhile, the laboratory expects to run out of supplies for this valuable testing.  They have called upon their peer network to borrow and replace consumables from their labs, on the outside possibility that their suppliers cannot provide them with the necessary materials quickly enough. Such outreach emphasizes the importance of building relationships through networks such as the Laboratory Response Network and the Environmental Response Laboratory Network.

Click the image above for an interview with Hawaii’s public health laboratory director and many of their staff.

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