Tuna Cannery May Be Closed Unless Waste Rules Are Eased

Times Staff Writer

Owners of the Pan Pacific Fisheries cannery on Terminal Island, accused of discharging too much fish oil and grease into city sewers, have threatened to close the cannery unless the city changes the way it monitors the plant's wastes.

Officials from California Home Brands, which owns the cannery, told the Los Angeles Board of Public Works last week that the company cannot afford to install waste-treatment equipment that the city says is needed to bring operations in line with discharge regulations.

$1 Million Estimate

The company officials, who insist that their own tests show the cannery is meeting all regulations, estimated that the equipment would cost $1 million.

The company's permit from the city allows the cannery to discharge 100 milligrams of oil and grease in each liter of waste it flushes into the sewers, or roughly 50 gallons of oil and grease out of the 500,000 gallons of waste the plant generates each day. City inspectors have detected violations ranging from 111 milligrams to 17,800 milligrams per liter.

Pan Pacific Fisheries, the only surviving tuna cannery in the continental United States, has about 600 employees. It is the largest of three canneries on Terminal Island; the others, Star-Kist Foods and United Food Processors, package pet food and mackerel. Pan Pacific also cans some mackerel.

The Pan Pacific cannery, which had about $75 million in sales last year, buys about $40 million worth of fish each year from domestic fishermen, including "significant amounts" from fishermen based in San Pedro, company officials said.

Company officials, however, described the cannery as only marginally profitable, and an attorney for the firm said that California Home Brands would like to sell it.

"We will be more than happy to expend reasonable amounts of money to comply with what we believe to be acceptable standards of discharge," said John M. Bridges, senior vice president of California Home Brands.

"What we are not willing to do is spend over a million dollars to put treatment equipment into our facility . . . to cope with what we believe to be a spurious level of requirements," he said. "We will not do it."

The board voted to give the company an additional six months to meet the regulations without installing the city-recommended treatment equipment, but delayed until Monday a key decision about whether to ease monitoring and enforcement practices at the cannery.

Without a change in those areas, company officials said, the six-month extension is meaningless and the cannery will be unable to survive.

"The alternatives will be simply this: (We) will recommend to our board that we will immediately cease operations, and that will be the end of Pan Pacific Fisheries," Bridges told the Board of Public Works.

Company officials complain that the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation has interpreted discharge regulations in such a way that it has become impossible for the cannery to avoid violations.

During a nine-month period last year, for example, the company was found to be in violation on an almost daily basis. Those violations prompted the bureau to recommend to the board that the company add treatment equipment or lose its discharge permit, leading to the hearing last week.

The company contends that the 100-milligram standard is meant as a daily average, while the city's Bureau of Sanitation interprets it as a maximum at any given time. If discharges were measured as an average, the company says, the cannery would rarely violate its permit.

The company also charges that many of the violations detected by the bureau are based on samples collected during hours when the cannery is not in operation. The company argues that the city is getting excessive readings because inspectors are collecting samples from pipes that are clogged with grease and oil.

"This is apparently because some fish oil is sticking to the pipe during the discharge, and when the flow stops, the fish oil moves down the wall of the pipe into the city's meter," Joel S. Moskowitz, an attorney for the company, argued in a letter to the board.

Bureau of Sanitation officials, however, stand by their monitoring. Vincent J. Varsh, a sanitary engineer who oversees the tests, told the board that the bureau has been enforcing the regulations as they are stated in the company's discharge permit.

He said inspectors have noted many violations based on samples collected when the cannery was flushing waste into the system, and he disputed the claim that the pipes ooze large amounts of oil after the plant closes.

"Staff has never found accumulation there," Varsh told the board.

The city stepped up its routine monitoring at Pan Pacific Fisheries last year after extremely high levels of oil and grease detected at the city's Terminal Island sewage treatment plant were traced, in part, to the cannery. Sanitation officials said the oil and grease was contributing to general treatment problems at the sewage plant and was directly responsible for a grease violation of the plant's federal discharge permit in December, 1986.

Large amounts of oil and grease accumulate at canneries during the slaughtering, cleaning, cooking and processing of the fish. The oil and grease collect in brine from frozen fish that has thawed, in rinse water from the butchering process and in water used to flush the floors and equipment.

While much of the solid waste, or sludge, is treated on site and sold as fertilizer compounds, the waste water is discharged into the sewers.

At the board meeting on Monday, Pan Pacific Fisheries challenged the 100-milligram discharge standard, arguing that it was imposed a decade ago when there were four large canneries on Terminal Island discharging oil and grease into the sewers.

With the sharp reduction in cannery activity, the company asked that the standard be increased to at least 200 milligrams and that the city collect data only when the cannery is actually discharging wastes.

Varsh, the sanitary engineer, opposed the changes, saying it would take a year for the bureau to study the effects of a 200-milligram standard on the Terminal Island sewage treatment plant. The board, however, gave Varsh just one week to come back with a report explaining why the increase should not be granted--at least temporarily.

A similar increase has been granted temporarily by the bureau to the Star-Kist pet food cannery on Terminal Island, and the bureau is considering making that level permanent. United Food Processors, the third cannery, operates under the 100-milligram standard.

"I cannot see having a different standard for one company and not another," said board President Edward J. Avila.

Bridges, of California Home Brands, said in an interview after the meeting that the board's willingness to grant a 200-milligram standard, while a good sign, would not resolve Pan Pacific's problems with the city.

"No matter what kind of limit they give to us, we still feel the issue is the method of taking the samples and determining the concentration," he said.

Delbert Zwolle, vice president of United Industrial Workers Local 24, which represents the 600 cannery workers, said Wednesday that the union had not been contacted about the company's discharge problems. He was unaware that California Home Brands was considering closing the plant if its problems are not resolved.

Bridges said the company has not approached workers at the cannery because "we don't want to cry wolf." He said the company is still "cautiously optimistic" that it will be able to reach an agreement on Monday with the Board of Public Works.

"The last thing we want to do is close an operating cannery that is struggling hard to survive and provide economic benefit to this community," he said.

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