Seafood company fined for polluting water in Aleutians

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 9, 2011 

WASHINGTON — A Seattle-based seafood company that operates mostly in Alaska will pay $1.9 million in penalties as well as cleanup costs for the ammonia and other waste it discharged from its processing plant in the Aleutians.

UniSea agreed to the fine to settle allegations that it violated federal and state environmental laws, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said Wednesday in Anchorage.

Although the Justice Department couldn't say whether it's the largest fine ever levied against a seafood processor in Alaska, prosecutors consider it a sizable punishment.

"This is definitely an important case and a great result for the state of Alaska," said Kevin Feldis, the criminal division chief for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Anchorage. "It certainly sends an important message of deterrence and accountability for environment violations."

Beginning in 2005, the government said, UniSea discharged ammonia and other pollutants from its facility in Dutch Harbor into surrounding waters.

It did so without a permit, in violation of the Clean Water Act, the Justice Department said. The company also agreed that it failed to notify authorities of two large releases of ammonia from its facility in December 2007, a violation of federal and state environmental reporting laws.

The Japanese company Nippon Suisan Kaisha owns UniSea.

The company said in a statement that it found condenser tube leaks in refrigeration equipment in 2007, and reported it to state and federal authorities. Both the state of Alaska and the Environmental Protection Agency then conducted a three-year review of the company's environmental and safety practices, and found the releases violated anti-pollution laws.

At no time were any employees at risk or its seafood products, the company said. In addition to the fine, the company also spent $1.6 million to upgrade its refrigeration systems, UniSea said in its statement.

To comply with the settlement, UniSea also must survey the seafloor to see what sort of damage the ammonia discharge caused. That testing, which the EPA will oversee, will determine what sort of cleanup is required, including of the processing site's fish waste pile. UniSea also must implement a comprehensive environmental compliance plan to prevent further violations.

UniSea operates its main seafood-processing facility in Dutch Harbor. Over a three-year period, the company released anhydrous ammonia as well as propylene glycol, unscreened seafood-processing wastewater, crab waste, stick water — the solution that's left over after the fish are cooked and the oil is removed — fish meal and foam from its Dutch Harbor facility. That violated the terms of a 2003 EPA permit, the government said.

The two large ammonia releases in December 2007 were about 17,000 pounds. Facilities must report releases in excess of 100 pounds, but the UniSea releases weren't reported to the appropriate federal, state or local authorities until the middle of January 2008.

In a previous agreement with the state of Alaska, UniSea employee Arthur Aliment pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of failing to report the release of a hazardous substance.

Aliment was the UniSea worker who was responsible for reporting releases to the appropriate authorities. He was sentenced in January to 45 days in jail with the time suspended, a $7,500 fine with $3,750 suspended, 60 hours of community service and a year of probation.

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