Legal & Regulatory

Regulatory Blind Spots Gained Notice In Zillah Ammonia Leak

December 19
3:31 PM 2016

The recent ammonia leak at a Zillah fruit warehouse alarmed residents across the Yakima Valley. They saw the area's ubiquitous packing houses as potential threats to their safety. Emergency responders were quickly available after this leak at Stadelman Fruit.

With the incident, people took notice of some regulatory blind spots in facility safety inspections. The local emergency responders, however, expressed confidence in Valley's preparedness in containing such incidents.

"Keep in mind, our major threats in Yakima County are, No. 1, wildland fires; No. 2, floods; No. 3, winter storms," said Scott Miller, director of the Yakima County Office of Emergency Management.

He added that major hazmat spills are extremely rare, stressing that they are prepared for that.

Based on the data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, the last ammonia spill in the county occurred in 2008 at Congdon Packing Co. No one was reported to be hospitalized as a result of the one-hour leak.

In accordance to state and federal laws, a risk-management plan must be in place for facilities using pressurized ammonia to cool fruit. Such facilities must also undergo routine inspections in order to prevent accidents and the release of toxic chemicals.

However, the groups responsible for the conduct of inspections vary depending on the size of the facility. For facilities that use at least 10,000 gallons of ammonia, the annual inspection is done by EPA. They are in charge of more than 500 facilities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

As part of their risk-management program, they probe storage tanks, pipes and pressure valves. They also check whether the operators are appropriately trained, as well as determine if the company follows its risk-management plan.

On the other hand, facilities using less than 10,000 gallons of ammonia are not as streamlined, therefore falling on several agencies, each with a different focus. Stadelman Fruit is classified under this category.

With about 3,100 facilities in the Yakima County, State Labor and Industries spokesman Tim Church commented that instead of the relying on actual state employees, the department often has to rely on state-certified inspectors from the insurance companies that cover those facilities for more in-depth inspections.

"Frankly, there's too many of them for us to test them all," he said.

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