It’s been four months since an ammonia spill on a processing vessel shut down parts of Unalaska. Now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has wrapped up their investigation into the accident.
The result: more than $55,000 in fines – and some valuable lessons for emergency responders.
This July, the Seattle-based processing vessel Excellence was on its way to Unalaska when the crew discovered a tiny leak in their ammonia line. They tried to empty it out, and called Alpha Welding to patch the hole.
According to Scott Ketcham, OSHA’s Anchorage area director, that’s where the trouble started.
“The ammonia line would have been, or should have been, evacuated,” says Ketcham. “In this case, the valve was not locked out, and they cut into a live line.”
That oversight is one of five worker safety violations that OSHA found on the Excellence. All five were rated “serious,” and one was a repeat offense. That added up to $50,000 in fines for the seafood company that owns the vessel.
In all, two welders and a crew member from the Excellence were exposed to a cloud of ammonia. They were sent to the hospital, where one welder was treated for serious lung damage. The rest of the ship’s crew was evacuated. Roads around the Kloosterboer cold storage dock, where the Excellence was tied up, had to be shut down.
Abner Hoage had been Unalaska’s fire chief for just two weeks when the spill happened. He was fresh out of the Air Force, and had just moved to town from Idaho. While he was up for a challenge, he didn’t know what kind of assistance he could expect.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for local processors to offer help.
“Westward provided personnel to participate in the command structure. They had a refrigeration expert who was out there a lot,” Hoage says. “UniSea was down there with their hazmat team and personnel. Alyeska had people down there with equipment and personnel.”
The plants also offered to house the displaced crew of 130 people for more than a week while the Excellence was fixed. In a way, Hoage says, the accident had its upsides.
“I got to meet people and develop relationships with the industry and the other resources in the community that may have taken me a year to otherwise meet,” says Hoage.
Hoage says he’s also writing up agreements with the processors that lay out their response capabilities so the city is prepared for future emergencies.
In the wake of the ammonia leak, the city also learned it can call on Anchorage’s fire department. That agency has said they’re willing to charter a plane or use military aircraft to get to Unalaska in the case of a big emergency.
For now, OSHA’s case against the Excellence is still open. Anchorage-area director Scott Ketcham says the vessel’s owner has been extremely cooperative. Premier Pacific Seafoods has planned a serious overhaul of their safety system, which he says helped them get their fines reduced from $65,000 to $50,000.
“Yes, there was some reductions in return for good faith,” Ketcham says. “But they gave us some really good corrections for these things, happening in the future. And I feel very comfortable with the other contractor.”
By “other contractor,” he means Alpha Welding. OSHA found that they didn’t have the right permits or properly-fitted safety equipment when they took on the Excellence welding job.
Their fine was only $4,000, but they’ve spent five times that amount on new safety programs and permits. Going forward, Alpha Welding has a new rule when working on refrigeration systems. They won’t make the first cut into a pipe that could potentially contain ammonia. Instead, they’ll leave that up to the ship’s crew.