As if 233,000 gallons of molasses spilling into Honolulu Harbor last month wasn't bad enough, now a U.S. government shutdown is impeding efforts to reveal the spill's cause. Without federal resources, the investigation could be about as slow as, well, molasses.

The spill came to light on Sept. 9, after an underwater pipeline operated by Matson Navigation Co. began inexplicably spewing the sweet, viscous sludge. Loose molasses quickly sank to the seabed, killing tens of thousands of fish and other marine animals. Although cleanup efforts are mostly finished now, damage and culpability investigations could still be hindered by the government shutdown, which began Oct. 1.

"I will be out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown. I will be unable to respond to email or voicemail messages," says the voicemail greeting of Kelly Zito, public affairs director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest office, which oversees Hawaii. Zito is one of about 800,000 federal workers furloughed by the shutdown — including some 94 percent of EPA employees — rendering much of their work suspended indefinitely until lawmakers in Congress restore funding.

The investigation won't be derailed by the politically driven shutdown, Gary Gill of the Hawaii Department of Health tells Honolulu Civil Beat, but it could be delayed.

"These investigations take time, so it would be a delay obviously if we don't have our partners to work with," Gill tells Civil Beat. "But it's not like everything comes to a grinding halt. We're doing the investigation on our side."

The EPA and state health department had been collaborating on an investigation to determine whether Matson should be charged with violating the Clean Water Act as well as other state or federal laws, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been helping to study the spill's ecological effects and develop a long-term rehab plan for Honolulu Harbor. With most of the EPA and about 45 percent of NOAA furloughed, however, the brunt of that work will now fall to state officials until the shutdown ends.

Matson Terminal in Honolulu

The Matson shipping terminal in Honolulu Harbor. (Photo: Ryan Ozawa/NOAA)

But that doesn't mean state officials themselves are immune from scrutiny over the spill. The Hawaii Legislature may investigate lapses by Matson as well as state agencies like the Department of Transportation, whose oversight of the harbor includes inspecting pipelines.

"What we are essentially looking for are the results of the various investigations to show us where the lapses were in response, in prevention, in inspection, and all the various components that allowed this to happen," Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the state's House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, tells Civil Beat. "We want to be able to address each and every one of them to make sure this doesn't happen again, make sure taxpayers are not on the hook and make sure the area is cleaned up and restored."

Matson, which suspended its molasses operations in Hawaii after the spill, has agreed to cover the government's cleanup costs instead of taxpayers. "We'll be here as long as it takes to get it right," the company said in a statement last month. The company has been less clear on the issue of paying for damages, though, prompting the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter to organize an online petition to "hold Matson accountable."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

U.S. shutdown slows Hawaii molasses probe
U.S. authorities have largely suspended their investigation of the molasses spill that fouled Hawaiian waters last month.