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Ammonia drains into Thea Foss Waterway

Anhydrous ammonia drained Wednesday evening into the Thea Foss Waterway, seen here in a 2012 file photo, according to the state Department of Ecology. The spill was not believed to be large, but state agencies will be monitoring the waterway for any lingering effects, an Ecology spokesman said Friday.
Anhydrous ammonia drained Wednesday evening into the Thea Foss Waterway, seen here in a 2012 file photo, according to the state Department of Ecology. The spill was not believed to be large, but state agencies will be monitoring the waterway for any lingering effects, an Ecology spokesman said Friday. Staff file, 2012

Ammonia spilled into the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma earlier this week when a pipe sprung a leak at a waterfront warehouse, the state Department of Ecology confirmed Friday.

A leaky pipe in the ceiling of the SuperValu distribution center at 1525 E. D St. was reported about 7 p.m. Wednesday, Ecology spokesman David Bennett said.

“It was not huge,” Bennett said. “But any spill is critical.”

Ecology, the city of Tacoma and the federal Environmental Protection Agency all responded to the spill.

The ammonia leaked because of a faulty valve in the ceiling pipes at the SuperValu building. The company promptly shut down its valves and tanks before purging its system.

“No employees were harmed by the leak,” SuperValu spokesman Jeff Swanson said in a statement. “We place a top priority on the safety of our operations for our employees, neighbors and communities, and we regret any impact this incident may have had on our local community.”

The ammonia drained to outside the plant, Bennett said, which is how people in the area would have noticed the smell.

Diluted ammonia went to a drain that emptied into the Thea Foss Waterway.

“That is not something we would recommend,” Bennett said of the drain. “That will be part of the investigation.”

Bennett said the leak was stopped and mostly contained by SuperValu by the time a contracted company — National Response Corporation Environmental Services — arrived and used a vacuum truck to suck clean the pipes, drain and around the facility.

How much ammonia spilled into Puget Sound is not yet known.

The mostly likely immediate impact would be to fish and wildlife, but no impact was observed, Bennett said. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife was notified and will monitor the area.

The short-term threat would be increased nutrients in the water. Anhydrous ammonia is component of some fertilizers.

Increased nutrients could create algae blooms. When algae blooms oxygen levels go up in the water, but they go down when the algae dies.

It would take a significant spill to cause an algae bloom, Bennett said, but Ecology will continue to monitor the area.

SuperValu officials have been cooperative, Bennett said, though it is too soon to know if the company will be sanctioned.

“We have cooperated with the regulators regarding their review of this situation,” SuperValu’s Swanson wrote in his statement. “We are also reviewing our internal policies and procedures to ensure safe operations in the future.”

It is important for people to act quickly if they see or smell a spill, Bennett said, especially if it is spilling into water.

He said they should call 800-424-8802 and 800-258-5990 to notify the Department of Ecology.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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