TACOMA — A seafood processing ship with a troubled history of pollution and safety issues is leaking ammonia on Tacoma’s Foss Waterway. There’s no immediate threat to the public, the U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday.
On Tuesday night, contractors hired by the Coast Guard pumped carbon dioxide into the 77-year-old Pacific Producer to reduce the fire hazard on the ship. On Wednesday, they were assessing the best method to remove ammonia from the ship’s leaking tanks, according to Coast Guard spokesperson Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier.
Pacific Producer is moored at the old Martinac ship building facility directly across the waterway from the Fish Peddler restaurant.
The ammonia leak was first reported Aug. 13 after an inspection by the Tacoma Fire Department. The ship was sealed to prevent entry.
The state Department of Ecology initially responded to the scene, according to Ecology spokesperson Ty Keltner, and helped with setting up the initial air monitoring.
On board Pacific Producer, a Coast Guard inspection found severely degraded ammonia tanks on two decks with their gauges painted over, Strohmaier said.
Why ammonia is dangerous
Initially, ammonia levels on Pacific Producer were found to be 89 parts per million, according to the Coast Guard. The gas can be detected by the human nose at concentrations greater than 5 ppm. Concentrations above 70 ppm can cause stinging or burning in the eyes, nose or throat along with watering of the eyes, sneezing and coughing. Concentrations of above 2,000 ppm can be fatal after just a few breaths.
Ammonia is used on seafood processing ships primarily as a refrigerant, according to marine insurance company North Standard.
“Incidents involving refrigeration systems have resulted in serious injuries, many fatal, of a significant number of fishing vessel crew and shore side staff who may be on board the vessel, such as stevedores,” the company states in a loss prevention brief.
Ammonia is both flammable and toxic, according to North Standard, and regular maintenance is vital to safety.
“It is important to note that long-term exposure to ammonia will not help result in an increased tolerance to it, but only weakens the person’s ability to detect it,” North Standard states.
Pacific Producer arrived on the Foss Aug. 29, 2022, after its owner, Christos Tsabouris, said he couldn’t find mooring in Seattle. The 472 gross ton, 169-foot-long boat was built in 1946 and has been working in Alaskan waters until recently. It’s registered to East West Seafoods of Seattle.
In January, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited East West for 20 violations including 17 listed as “serious.” It assessed $208,983 in fines with abatement required by Feb. 23. The ship has had similar OSHA violations dating to 2012, including sanitation, electrical, fire hazards and a previous ammonia leak in 2018.
In 2017, East West Seafoods was fined $50,000 in federal court after it intentionally discharged oily bilge water and raw sewage from the Pacific Producer into the ocean off the Alaskan coast. It then presented false records to the Coast Guard.
At least two people will be stationed at the ship 24 hours a day until the hazards have been mitigated, Strohmaier said.
On Wednesday, ammonia monitors were set up on both sides of the waterway. The Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring air quality on the ship and around the area, according to spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski.
The Coast Guard is also monitoring the ship’s stability, Strohmaier said.
Coast Guard contractor US Ecology will determine the course of action, he said. US Ecology is a private company owned by Republic Services and not affiliated with any government.
“They are determining what will be the best and safest method,” Strohmaier said.
The potentially dangerous situation hasn’t slowed outdoor dining at the Fish Peddler.
“Although Pacific Seafood’s Fish Peddler has no relation to the boat, it is not affecting our beautiful waterfront view,” the company’s spokesperson Grace Boehm said Tuesday. “In fact, some find the boat is quite the conversation point for those enjoying happy hour or other meals on our expansive outdoor patio.”
In March, the city of Tacoma became aware of an illegal floating dock built around the Pacific Producer. The city regulates the installation of moorage and docking infrastructure under its shoreline code.
The city’s Planning and Development Services Department has been coordinating with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on the violation, according to city spokesperson Maria Lee. WDFW told the property owner to remove the floats by July 30.
“After an inspection confirmed that the floats were still present on July 31, 2023, PDS issued a civil penalty on August 3, 2023,” Lee said. “Staff reinspected the site (Tuesday), and the floats are still present.”
The next step, Lee said, is to issue a second civil penalty, likely this week. Each civil penalty is $250, Lee said.
The Martinac site is owned by P&S Company, a limited liability company.
This week’s problems with Pacific Producer are the latest in a string of incidents involving fish processing ships moored in Tacoma.
In February 2021, a fire on the Aleutian Falcon led to a hydraulic oil spill while it was docked for maintenance on the Hylebos Waterway. The ship was a total loss and its owner, Trident Seafoods, was fined $25,000 by Ecology for the spill.
In April, a fire on board the Kodiak Enterprise, another Trident ship moored on the Hylebos, burned for nearly two weeks and sent toxic smoke over northeast Tacoma, prompting a shelter in place order. That ship began to list during the fire but was eventually stabilized.
Both the EPA and state Ecology said they recover time and resources costs from incidents like the Trident fires and the Pacific Producer incident. In addition to fines, Ecology recovers estimated monetary damages to the environment.
Communities for a Healthy Bay, a Tacoma-based environmental advocacy non-profit, said it has observed several potential issues concerning the ship since its arrival.
“Given its history of violations, our foremost concern remains the safety of our neighbors and the well being of our marine ecosystem,” the group said. “We strongly encourage the relevant authorities to address this matter promptly and consider relocating or decommissioning the Pacific Producer to prevent future incidents.”