State scientists working to assess impact of Honolulu molasses spill

Water Sample Testing

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Thousands of fish are dead and businesses forced to close.

Now, state scientists are working tirelessly to assess the impact of the molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor.

KHON2 visited the state laboratory to check out this painstaking process.

“We are doing three different types of tests currently,” said Dayna Ornellas with the State Laboratories Division.

It’s a process that would normally happen once a week, but since the recent molasses spill, state microbiologists have been working up to 16 hours a day testing water samples.

“So far, so good. They have been at it seven days straight now and so we will constantly monitor our microbiologists and chemists to see that they are okay and don’t get exhausted,” said Christian Whelen, Administrator for the Hawaii Department of Health State Laboratories Division.

Samples from 11 beaches and four local streams are brought in daily and are tested for bacteria.

“It is a bit time-consuming, but this is an emergency for everybody. But this take precedence over everything right now,” Ornellas said.

The scientists originally started with 30 samples and now it’s grown to 37.

“When we see the sample, they are just kind of giving us a snapshot of where they think the spill has happened and surrounding areas from that spill,” Ornellas said.

Using techniques including UV lights, membrane filtration, and growing bacteria, scientists can determine what and how much bacteria are in the water and if there’s a threat to marine life.

“The indicator organisms that we test for can give us an idea of what the water quality is,” Whelen said.

The molasses spill is being called the worst environmental spill in Hawaii history — even worse than the Ala Wai sewage seven years ago.

“Sewage is going to dissipate relatively quickly and we are not seeing that with the molasses,” Whelen said.

But state officials say their mission is to keep the public safe and healthy, and they are trying to do just that.

“It’s tiring, but it’s worth it,” Ornellas said.

Department of Health lab workers on the neighbor islands have been put on alert in case they need to step in and assist with the testing.

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