The Eureka Ice and Cold Storage refrigeration warehouse is one of the most essential businesses to the local fishing industry, but it's also been deemed a threat to public health and its owners have decided to shut it down.
A situation that has been on the county's enforcement radar for three-and-a-half years is being resolved this week as Eureka Ice, which has been in business for about 50 years, evacuates its anhydrous ammonia refrigerant system on Waterfront Drive and closes. The business is owned by the Hunter family, whose spokesman is Dennis Hunter. He said Tuesday the family weighed some tough choices -- staying open and facing $9.4 million in fines and heavy investment in upgrades, or resolving the situation quickly and finally by closing.
Hunter, who is better known as a Harbor District commissioner, said he and his siblings "inherited" the business when his father, Gilbert A. Hunter, died in December 2006. "So we're kind of left with this problem," Hunter said, and the problem is that Eureka Ice has structural and cooling system deficiencies that could trigger releases of potentially harmful gaseous ammonia.
When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and county inspectors went to Eureka Ice last July, they found substandard conditions and at one point had to leave the area they were in because ammonia gas was seeping from a pipe valve. A subsequent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft inspection report summarized the potential for catastrophe.
"Eureka Ice and Cold Storage is located close, two blocks, from Old Town and downtown Eureka and an ammonia release is an extreme hazard to the surrounding community," the report states. "Additionally, the condition of the building, ammonia refrigeration equipment, equipment supports and the discovery of an ammonia leak during the inspection indicates that a future release is probable."
An earthquake could cause a release, and Humboldt County is within a high-probability quake zone. But Mary Wesling, an EPA enforcement coordinator, said other risks are more relevant. "An ammonia release is more likely to occur because of failure of equipment or human error than an earthquake," she said.
The agency's July 16 draft inspection report details the problems. Eureka Ice has three large condensers on its roof which hold compressed ammonia, and they're propped on a metal platform that is corroded, along with its braces. The report states that the platform is of "questionable integrity."
More: "The building is old and dilapidated with deteriorated support columns which required re-anchoring to the floor." Heavy frost accumulation, "large sagging pipes" and "bent pipe supports" are also problematic. The ammonia release that occurred during the inspection happened at a valve where two pipes are joined.
Eureka Ice is a relatively small facility. There are conflicting accounts of how much ammonia it uses; it's reported to be 6,600 pounds, but its operations manager told the EPA that the level is actually 2,500 pounds. Whatever the quantity, anhydrous ammonia is "very dangerous," said Wesling. It readily combines with water and if it gets into the eyes or is breathed in large enough concentrations, it causes what can roughly be described as freezer burn to tissue. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's website advises careful monitoring of ammonia refrigeration systems for the protection of workers. "Because refrigeration systems operate at elevated pressures, additional care must be taken to maintain and operate these systems so as to prevent releases with potentially catastrophic consequences," the site states.
While the EPA looks at conformance with safety standards, the county enforces state laws requiring businesses to file risk management reports. The county's Environmental Health Division has been trying to get Eureka Ice to comply with the state's Accidental Release Prevention law since January 2005. "The facility is a potential danger -- it's a threat to public health and safety," said County Environmental Health Director Brian Cox, but he declined to be specific about what would be done about it.
The question was moot as of press time, when trucks from a Bay Area company were en route to Eureka Ice to end the enforcement issue by evacuating the ammonia.
Although Cox said that there had been no order to evacuate the system, Hunter said his family got a draft order dated Sept. 9 to do it within five days or face the fines. The order would have been finalized with a signature from a member of the family, Hunter said, but its attorney advised against signing it.
The order's intent will still be realized. "We're going ahead with it," said Hunter, referring to the ammonia removal. Asked about Cox's denial that such an order was issued, Hunter suggested it doesn't really matter.
"I don't want to make a war in the press," he said. "We're not going to take a risk, we want to be safe. I'm sure we'll still be crucified by the community, but we'll find out."
Hunter's status as a harbor commissioner makes him an easy target for criticism of the situation, which comes at a time when the district is considering pursuit of controversial port development. The connection to a "threat to public health" is bad P.R. for a harbor management official, but Hunter said his role in the district -- along with his being president of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce and Coast Central Credit Union's vice president of marketing -- takes up all his time.
"I don't run the ice house, I don't want to put it on my brother's shoulders, either," he said (Hunter's brother, Bill, is Eureka Ice's manager). "This is something we inherited and we'll just have to deal with it."
The EPA would have avoided closure options. The county has been waiting for seismic assessments and maintenance reports, however, and Cox said at least two violation notices have been sent. The situation was complex and potentially dangerous enough for him to call in the EPA, and the agency and the county have similar conclusions. "Our main concern is the potential threat to human health and the facility has not complied with our requests," said Cox.
The City of Eureka also paid attention to the safety issues, along with another factor -- Eureka Ice is a necessity for the local fishing industry. A Sept. 5 meeting between city officials and the business' owners was to "try to be helpful in the area of economic development, as this is a vital resource for the Humboldt Bay and the fishing industry," said City Manager David Tyson. "There is an economic development interest in preserving the jobs created by the plant itself as well as the fishing fleet that needs the flake ice and storage of their catches."
Fishermen will be able to get some ice from Pacific Choice Seafoods, Hunter said, but many will have to get it in Crescent City. The nearest freezer warehouses are in the Bay Area to the south and Albany, Ore., to the north. More than 100 customers used Eureka Ice's warehouse, and they'll have had to transfer the contents by now.
Hunter was asked if he agrees that Eureka Ice poses a community threat. "No, not really," he responded. "That building has been there a long, long time and it has withstood earthquakes ... we were working on compliance and I think we were headed in the right direction, but I don't think we got there in time."