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Tacoma ship fire worse for climate than burning a million gallons of gasoline

caption: Trident Seafoods' Kodiak Enterprise burns at the Port of Tacoma on April 8.
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Trident Seafoods' Kodiak Enterprise burns at the Port of Tacoma on April 8.
South King Fire and Rescue

A major fire at the Port of Tacoma has had global as well as local consequences.

Neighborhoods in Tacoma and Federal Way, Washington, were ordered to stay indoors for two days to avoid smoke from Trident Seafoods’ Kodiak Enterprise, a factory-sized fishing boat that started burning Saturday morning.

The Puyallup Tribe’s boats couldn’t get out to harvest geoducks in Puget Sound once the U.S. Coast Guard closed the industrialized Hylebos Waterway, where the Kodiak Enterprise is docked, to all boat traffic.

First responders said the fire was winding down Tuesday evening—not soon enough to stop the disaster from having global as well as local consequences.

The fire on the Kodiak Enterprise released tons of one of the most dangerous substances for the global climate and the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Firefighters attempted to keep tanks containing nearly 10 tons of the coolant Freon from overheating and releasing their contents to the atmosphere.

“The Freon is located in the rear of the boat, and they've been spraying water on the outside of the boat to keep that area cool,” Ty Keltner with the Washington Department of Ecology, one of the agencies responding to the fire, said Monday morning.

Firefighters attacked the fire from the dock and from water-spraying fire boats. They had to be careful to avoid waterlogging the listing ship and making it capsize.

By Tuesday night, it became apparent that efforts to contain the Freon had failed.

“The tanks that had the Freon in them, they have found those tanks empty,” Keltner said.

He said the tanks appeared to have vented their contents from pressure-relief valves as designed, to avoid a potentially explosive buildup of pressure under high temperatures.

“This is the second boat fire in this location in two years,” the Puyallup Tribal Council said in a press release praising first responders’ efforts to contain the fire and prevent spills into Commencement Bay. "Safety measures must be strong enough to prevent these incidents from happening at all.”

caption: The Kodiak Enterprise, weighed down by water used to fight a fire on board, lists to port on April 10 at the Port of Tacoma.
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1 of 3 The Kodiak Enterprise, weighed down by water used to fight a fire on board, lists to port on April 10 at the Port of Tacoma.
U.S. Coast Guard/Diolanda Caballero

The Kodiak Enterprise returned from Alaska in March after a season of hauling up pollock from the Bering Sea, then docked at Trident Seafoods’ Tacoma facility for routine maintenance.

The floating fish-processing factory was carrying about 55,000 gallons of diesel and 9.5 tons of Freon, a trade name that covers several chemically related coolants. The Kodiak Enterprise’s Freon, also known as HCFC-22 or R-22, is the most widely used variety.

It’s used to help turn Bering Sea pollock into frozen fish sticks.

When Freon escapes the cooling and refrigeration systems it’s used in, it has the opposite effect on the global climate.

Freon traps about 1,800 times more heat in the atmosphere than the same amount of carbon dioxide does, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At that rate, the Freon released during the Kodiak Enterprise fire will do as much damage to the global climate as burning 1.7 million gallons of gasoline.

The four-day conflagration also sent an unknown amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Freon is an ozone-depleting substance as well, though it is only about 5% as harmful to the Earth’s protective ozone layer as the chemicals it replaced, known as CFCs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A global treaty known as the Montreal Protocol launched the gradual phaseout of nearly 100 synthetic chemicals that destroy ozone, including Freon, in 1987, shortly after scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica.

Many freezers and air conditioners still use Freon, even though manufacturing or importing it was prohibited in 2020 in industrialized nations.

“There is no more virgin R-22 [Freon] being manufactured in the U.S., maybe anywhere,” said Francis Dietz with the Air Conditioning Heating and Refrigeration Institute, the lobbying group for makers and users of coolants.

“There is still plenty of R-22 around because of recycling, reuse, and that sort of thing,” Dietz said. “It is going to go the way of the dinosaur before too long.”

There’s no particular timeline for this chemical dinosaur’s extinction: Use of existing stocks is allowed to continue indefinitely. As freezers and air conditioners using Freon spring leaks and need to be refilled, supplies are expected to get tighter and more expensive.

“At some point, it becomes a better deal for you to just replace your system,” Dietz said.

Unlike many of the substance’s users, Trident Seafoods does face deadlines for breaking its Freon habit.

In 2019, Trident, the largest seafood company on the West Coast, with a fleet of 37 ships, paid a $900,000 fine for repeated leaks from its fish-freezing facilities.

The Environmental Protection Agency accused the company of repeatedly failing to repair coolant leaks within 30 days as required, resulting in 100 tons of harmful refrigerant escaping to the atmosphere between 2009 and 2016.

Under a 2019 consent decree with the EPA, Trident agreed to spend up to $23 million to prevent coolant leaks and switch to less-harmful coolants.

A schedule was spelled out for upgrading the company’s freezers, with the first of 14 fishing boats to be tackled in 2020.

“We’re fully compliant and in fact ahead of some of the requirements,” said Trident Seafoods spokesperson Alexis Telfer. She said the company has voluntarily changed to safer coolants on at least six boats not covered by the consent decree.

The decree specifies penalties of $50 to $100 per pound of coolant released beyond certain limits.

EPA spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski said Trident might also face penalties under the Clean Air Act.

Trident doesn’t have to switch to climate-friendly coolant on the Kodiak Enterprise until January 2029.

Telfer said the cause of the fire is under investigation and it is unknown whether the ship can be put back in use.

After Trident’s Aleutian Falcon processor ship caught fire during repair work at the same location in February 2021, it was declared a total loss.

The Aleutian Falcon’s freezers used ammonia, which is toxic to breathe but does not heat the planet or destroy the ozone layer.

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