Massive molasses spill showcases major gaps in rules safeguarding Salvadoran society in face of narrow industry interests.
Update: A second large molasses spill ocurred on June 1, less than a month after the Magdalena spill in Chalchuapa, at a molasses storage facility north of San Salvador. The facility reportedly has a capacity of 2.5 million gallons, an unknown quantity of which flowed into the nearby Las Cañas River and toward communities in Apopa. The Ministry of Environment says the companies running the facility did not have the necessary environmental permits to operate it.
A sugar mill facility in western El Salvador containing 900,000 gallons of molasses overflowed Thursday morning, May 5, impacting the surrounding environment and communities.
The Ministry of Environment was alerted to the problem not by the sugar mill or its employees, but in response to a complaint from a private citizen. Minister Lina Pohl also reported that upon first arriving to the scene, she and a group of technicians found mill workers at a party instead of working to address what the Ministry would later declare an environmental emergency. Residents were temporarily evacuated due to the high levels of carbon dioxide emitted, and were told not to eat affected fish or use the water. Mill workers were mobilized to divert the river and build dikes to contain the molasses as it continued to spill into the Magdalena River, a tributary of the Paz River that forms the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.
The National Sugar Association, for its part, brought in experts from a Cuban counterpart who issued a report saying the spill would not cause systemic damage, even making the unscrupulous claim that the molasses would become “food for the fish.” The report also highlights relatively modest investments in Magdalena’s facilities that align with minimum best practices, including an elevated tank system that would facilitate temperature regulation.
In the days since the spill, various groups have voiced their concerns: residents who depend on the river for fish and drinking water are worried about their livelihoods; mill workers and representatives claim the incident has been blown out of proportion and affirm that the proposed fine would bankrupt the company and eliminate thousands of jobs; the Ministry of Environment and frustrated citizens across the country demand that those responsible be held accountable and make reparations for the damage. News footage sums up the diverging perspectives; in one clip, Minister Pohl calls the incident “a tremendous environmental disaster, a great irresponsibility;” in another, a mill representatives says “this little problem, in a couple weeks, will be history.”
There is no question that this preventable disaster caused major damage to the local watershed and environment, directly affecting over 450 rural families in four communities (some of whom cultivate sugarcane sold to the mill). It highlights an industry unwilling, or unable, to make tangible investments in its operations and personnel that could have prevented this incident. The environmental disaster also shows that state regulators are ill-equipped to enforce even minimal consequences for corporate malfeasance.
Lessons from Hawaii molasses spill
Although it dissolves in water over time, molasses is difficult to clean up. Unlike oil, the viscous liquid quickly sinks in water, displacing life-giving oxygen and indiscriminately killing aquatic animal life. The organic compounds in molasses behave much the same way raw sewage does when large amounts are dumped into an aquatic system: they deplete oxygen levels, causing short- and longer-term impacts on that ecosystem’s ability to sustain life.
A similar disaster occurred in Hawaii in 2013 when 1,400 tons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor after a corroded pipe broke. There, the spill killed more than 25,000 fish and other animals within days and caused major algal and bacterial blooms that still impact the harbor three years later. Though molasses does eventually disperse, it disrupts underwater life in a very dramatic way. A diver captured the incredible destruction caused by the Hawaii spill: in the seven-minute video, the ocean floor, normally teeming with life, is instead murky and scattered with dead fish, eels, and crabs. The then deputy director of Hawaii’s Environmental Health Division of the Health Department called it “the worst environmental damage to sea life” he had ever seen.
In El Salvador, residents near the spill are also documenting the damage it has done. Hundreds if not thousands of fish have washed up on riverbanks over a six mile stretch below the spill; dead fish have been reported as far downstream as San Francisco Menéndez, more than 20 miles away. Some people took advantage of the apparent bonanza to scoop up dead and dying fish. Afterward, however, residents reported that the smell of rotting fish was unbearable, and the hundreds of families who depend on fishing for their livelihood are left wondering when the fish will return, and what to do now.
Matson Navigation Company, the entity at fault in Hawaii, acknowledged the damage the 233,000 gallons of molasses had on the natural system, a spill similar in magnitude to what was observed at the Magdalena site. Matson settled out of court with the State of Hawaii to pay $15.4 million to restore the spill site, invest in improving its business operations, and compensate the community by donating to area conservation non-profits. Matson recognized its responsibilities as a good corporate citizen and a contributing member of the Hawaiian community, and did the right thing in the end.
Corporate negligence and poor regulation
In Hawaii, state inspectors identified leaks in the faulty pipe on two separate occasions in the months prior to the spill; on each occasion, either the company failed to find and fix the leak or state officials failed to communicate their findings to the company. The state did not require, and those responsible for the pipe did not have, a contingency plan in the event of a spill. In El Salvador, we see the same critical shortcomings: the Magdalena Sugar Mill’s facilities were poorly maintained; employees were not properly trained; and no one was equipped to respond to a spill in an appropriate and timely manner, especially not one of this magnitude.
And now, it appears the Ministry of Environment is powerless to assign due blame and levy fines on the company responsible for this environmental disaster. Current law constrains ministry officials by limiting, spatially and temporally, the extent to which a business can be held responsible for environmental damage. In other words, the Ministry cannot consider impact downstream of the mill’s immediate property, so any damages incurred further downriver, or that come to light later, are inadmissible.
In addition, due to a prior decision by the Supreme Court, the system of fines for crimes committed against the environment is unconstitutional. This decision came about when a business sued the government over a $400,000 fine and won. The court’s decision was based on a technicality in the National Environmental Law, as written, that determines fines based on “urban” minimum salaries, which is not an official legal categorization.
As a result, the environmental judge acting on the molasses spill case has been limited to ordering the company to cleanup the affected site and issue a public apology by May 22. The judge also tasked the municipality with seeing that the cleanup is carried out, and the Ministry of Environment with inspecting all the sugar mills in El Salvador to prevent similar incidents. Salvadorans are understandably frustrated at the government’s inability to enforce environmental law in a meaningful way.
A group of legislators who visited the spill site, including Congresswoman Estela Hernández, is trying to change this. They have submitted a bill that would reform Article 89 of the National Environmental Law, which governs fines for environmental infractions. Still, mill representatives and workers warn that the company would not survive such a financial penalty. They say that 6,500 jobs will be jeopardized if the Magdalena Sugar Mill is forced to accept the consequences of its own negligence.
Moving forward: what needs to be fixed
As of yesterday, the Ministry of Environment reports that more than 95% of the molasses has been removed and the water quality of the Magdalena River is returning to normal. It is uncertain whether or when fish populations will rebound. The molasses may have dissipated, but the underlying problem remains: El Salvador needs to establish and enforce standards that will protect communities and the environment from this kind of poor decisionmaking.
The Magdalena Sugar Mill should compensate the government of El Salvador for any costs incurred in cleanup, commit to paying for the cost of any efforts necessary to restore natural systems to their state prior to the spill, and compensate any downstream households or communities from lost income. They should also make a detailed commitment to the public and shareholders on how they will improve their operating standards.
All sugar mills operating in El Salvador should produce Environmental Disaster Contingency Plans, as mandated under the National Environmental Law, as well as comply with industry best practices.To date, the the Magdalena Sugar Mill has not produced such documentation.
The sugar industry has an opportunity to make good on its public overtures toward corporate responsibility. So far, its moves to undercut government investigations and its non-compliance with minimal business practice standards under current law do not inspire confidence. With proper oversight, the industry can work to minimize its negative impacts on people and the environment while improving its own business operations.
Over the long term, government agencies and the legislature need to work together to fix technicalities in Article 89 in order to allow officials to properly ascertain the scope of an environmental disaster, the extent of criminal negligence, and likewise empower the judiciary to impose appropriate fines equal to the scale of the impact.
EcoViva supports a broad coalition of civil society actors advocating for a legal framework that would institute common-sense regulations on the sugar industry and guarantee citizens’ right to clean water and a clean environment.