Skip to main content

Environmental Disaster in Honolulu Harbor

Knowing and Doing the Right Thing

By Prescott C. Ensign

Environmental Disaster in Honolulu Harbor



This case study illustrates the importance of decision-making based on sound science, business practices, engineering standards, and ethical principles. In 2013, approximately 1,400 tons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor, wiping out sea life as the molasses sank to the bottom of the harbor and caused widespread deoxygenation. Coral, sea grasses, and more than 26,000 fish and other marine species suffocated and died. From the outset, the cause of the disaster (leaky pipeline) was clear as well as the entities involved (Matson Navigation Co. and the Hawaii Department of Transportation Harbors Division). Less clear was whether the disaster was due to human negligence or poor organizational decisions. This analysis and discussion case was developed for use in an undergraduate management policy course for business, engineering, and technology students, and anyone needing practice in analyzing the actions of private companies and public agencies that may result in undesirable environmental, economic, and social outcomes. It can also be used in a variety of other undergraduate lower division courses including environmental science, marine science, biology, chemistry, and engineering.


Date Posted




  • Demonstrate critical thinking and reasoning in analyzing an organization’s decisions and actions in relation to the outcomes and consequences produced.
  • Scientifically evaluate how a non-regulated substance like molasses can be dangerous.
  • Discern the role that environmental stewardship, economic interests, and ethical values have on the behavior of an organization and its personnel.
  • Understand the importance of how patterns of decision making by an organization and its employees (knowing and doing the right thing) impact a work situation.


Ethical standards of conduct; deoxygenation; environmental liability; responsibility; crisis management; public relations; molasses; environmental disaster; regulatory issues; pipeline leak; negligence; Honolulu Harbor; Hawaii; Matson


Subject Headings

Business / Management Science
Engineering (General)
Environmental Science
Marine Science / Oceanography


Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, Professional (degree program)






Ethics, Legal Issues, Social Issues, Regulatory Issues






Analysis/Issues, Discussion, Dilemma/Decision



Asset 2