HONOLULU (AP) — A shipping company pleaded guilty Friday to criminal charges from a 233,000-gallon molasses spill in Honolulu Harbor, but a federal judge said he wants to examine the legality of $600,000 in community service payments the company has agreed to pay.
Last year's spill killed more than 26,000 fish and other marine life.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi accepted the plea from Matson Navigation Company Inc. to two misdemeanor charges for illegally releasing the molasses without a permit. The company and federal prosecutors wanted to proceed immediately with sentencing, with both sides agreeing Matson would pay a $400,000 fine and give $600,000 to environmental organizations.
But Puglisi said he has concerns because the $600,000 community service payment is higher than the maximum statutory fine. Each count carries a maximum fine of $200,000, and Matson has agreed to pay $400,000 for both.
Matson said in a statement earlier this week that as part of a plea agreement, the company would pay $300,000 to the Waikiki Aquarium to support coral programs and invasive algae clean-ups, and another $300,000 to Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.
The deal was still subject to court approval.
Puglisi called the community service payments "laudable" and said it's a common practice in many environmental cases. But he said it's usually done as a condition of probation. Without Matson serving probation, it wouldn't be appropriate to include the payments, the judge said.
Puglisi ordered a pre-sentence report to look into the issue, saying, "I want to make sure this ... is permissible under the law." He set sentencing for Jan. 29.
Enough molasses to fill about seven rail cars — 1,400 tons — oozed out from a section of pipe Matson thought had been sealed off, suffocating marine life and discoloring the water as it sunk to the bottom of Honolulu Harbor in September 2013.
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