A leading Seattle-based seafood company has agreed to pay the largest water-pollution fine ever handed down by the EPA to an Alaska fish processor, the agency says.
Trident Seafoods agreed to pay a $2.5 million penalty and spend as much as $40 million more on construction and research to prevent future Clean Water Act violations, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.
Trident was the largest seafood company in the United States last year with $1.25 billion in sales, according to the trade magazine SeaFood Busines. It makes the salmon burgers sold at Costco. It catches and processes pollock that becomes frozen fish sticks.
But not every part of a fish can be sold. Trident has to do something with the leftovers, and the EPA says the company has illegally discharged waste and other pollutants and failed to submit timely and accurate annual reports, among other violations, the agency said.
Fish waste that Trident has pumped into the ocean over many years outside its Akutan plant has spread into a pile on the sea floor the size of 38 football fields, the EPA says.
"It's a massive carpet of gelatinous goo," said EPA compliance officer Tara Martich.
About eight acres of that pile is waste that could have accumulated over the past 10 years or more at the Aleutian Islands plant. That portion may now be 10 to 20 feet thick, she said.
Underwater waste piles can create dead zones that suffocate sea life in the area, Martich said.
"(The waste) has been processed and then mixed with a bunch of water and then pumped out into the water where it settles on the sea floor," she said.
All told, the settlement filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court stems from 480 violations of the Clean Water Act, according to the EPA. The violations took place at 14 of the company's onshore and offshore plants, officials said.
The problems include discharging without a permit, exceeding permit limits and violating waste pile restrictions, said Ed Kowalski, director of the EPA's office of Compliance and Enforcement in Seattle.
Trident processes more than 800 million pounds of seafood in Alaska each year, said Joe Plesha, chief legal officer for the company. He could not immediately say how much fish waste the processing creates on an annual basis.
The EPA notified the company in April 2010 that it had been out of compliance with permit requirements around the state, Plesha said. He said the violations came as a surpirse and that the bulk are violations of monitoring and reporting requirements.
The company has restructured its environmental compliance department as a result, he said in a written statement sent to reporters.
"We are committed to more routinely training our staff in Alaska, self-auditing our performance and working more closely with the agency to prevent these types of violations from being repeated," he said.
This isn't the first time Trident has been fined by the EPA.
In 1998, the federal agency fined the company more than $400,000 for a complaint over wastewater. The EPA alleged Clean Water Act violations dating back to 1991, according to news reports at the time.
More recently, the seafood giant agreed to pay more than $112,000 for failing to properly report storage of toxic gas -- ammonia -- at three Alaska plants and a plant in Seattle.
The $2.5 million civil penalty the company agreed to pay in the latest settlement "is the largest penalty we've done to a fish processor in Alaska," said EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre.
That figure doesn't include the additional $30 million to $40 million Trident estimates it will spend on research and construction promised in the settlement, according to the EPA.
That spending could change the way the seafood industry does business in Alaska, Kowalski said.
"We estimate those source control and mediation measures will eliminate approximately 105 million pounds of seafood waste being discharged, per year, to Alaskan waters," he said.
For example, Trident plans to build a fishmeal plant in Naknek that will be used to recycle seafood processing waste. It is estimated to cost about $20 million and will be complete by 2015, Plesha said.
Meantime, the company says it also developing a process to capture tiny fish waste particles at the Akutan plant that are currently discharged into the ocean.
Trident also must study the underwater waste piles at its plants and, based on the results of those tests, may be required to remove them, the EPA said.
The company employs roughly 6,000 people in Alaska with 18 processing plants across the state, Plesha said.