U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says federal Superfund dollars can help with the response to the massive molasses spill in the Honolulu Harbor that has killed thousands of fish and put Hawaii in the national spotlight for the past week.

The Superfund program is dedicated to cleaning up toxic and hazardous waste sites. Besides money, it provides a mechanism to force those responsible for the pollution — in this case Matson Navigation Co. — to carry out clean ups or reimburse the government.

On Wednesday, Schatz held a teleconference for constituents. State and federal officials updated listeners on the status of the spill and how the agencies are monitoring any environmental impacts. Besides the state Department of Health, which has the lead in the response operation, federal agencies that have been mobilized are the Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’re committed for the long haul,” Schatz said. “We’ll do everything that we can to work with all of the responders to clean up the mess to restore the harbor to a healthy state and to prevent future accidents like this.”

Officials learned of the molasses spill on Sept. 9 after a murky brown substance was found in the harbor. The sugary goop was coming from a damaged Matson pipeline that runs beneath the Horizon Lines pier in Honolulu Harbor.

Around 1,400 tons, or about 233,000 gallons, of molasses is believed to have spilled into the harbor. So far, more than 26,000 fish have been killed and coral reefs off the shoreline are dying.

Matson is the only company that ships molasses in bulk from Hawaii. There are currently no government regulations in place related to molasses since it is not considered a hazardous material, like gasoline and oil. Officials have said Matson was allowed to inspect and maintain its own pipelines with no government oversight.

While the company has said that it will pay for all costs associated with the spill, response and cleanup — which will likely include significant amounts of environmental restoration — Schatz’s Washington D.C. press secretary, Julie McClain, said the dedication of Superfund money is a backup plan to make sure the government’s efforts aren’t stymied.

“This is important because the agencies don’t have to worry about how they will pay to take actions needed in real time,” McClain said in an email. “We understand that Matson has acknowledged responsibility for the spill. With their goodwill, it may not be necessary to tap into (Superfund) funding at all. However, the availability of the (Superfund) money gives the responding agencies confidence to proceed knowing that they have a source of funding available.”

Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 that taxed petroleum and chemical industries to help pay for the response efforts when hazardous materials are released into the environment.

Officials have set up an incident command center on Sand Island Road. Keith Kawaoka of the state Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office said Wednesday about 85 people “are working on this thing very hard on a daily basis.”

Kawaoka and NOAA scientists said tests of the water as well as other monitoring efforts show that the situation is visibly improving, with oxygen levels returning to normal and the molasses slowly flushing out into areas where coastal currents are carrying it away. Some molasses is still not flushed out of Keehi Lagoon, especially the west end near the reef runway of Honolulu International Airport.

Federal environmental officials — from EPA, the Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA — are crafting long-term monitoring plans to determine effects on fish and the marine habitat, including the coral reefs and other endangered species.

Kevin Foster, a marine ecology specialist with the Fish & Wildlife Service, said researchers are hoping to identify the extent of injuries to the marine environment and then come up with ways to rebuild the resources.

People with questions about the spill, the response or other issues can email the Joint Information Center at molassesresponsejic@gmail.com.

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