Coast Guard keeps explosives out of Olympia's port

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- The Coast Guard has refused a shipper permission to barge 2.3 million pounds of explosives bound for Alaska through the Port of Olympia, forcing the shipment to move through less populous Skagit County.

The Alaska Pacific Powder Co. had obtained a permit June 6 from the Olympia Fire Department to ship liquid ammonium nitrate for the Red Dog Mine out of the Port of Olympia.

But the Olympia-based shipper was denied a second permit from the Coast Guard to float the chemical compound by barge from Puget Sound to the mine near Kotzebue.

Cominco Alaska Inc. plans to combine the ammonium nitrate with fuel oil to blast zinc deposits at its Red Dog mine near Kotzebue in northwest Alaska. By itself, ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer, is not particularly volatile.

''The 2.3 million pounds of this shipment is the largest I've ever seen,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Steve O'Malley with the agency's marine safety office in Seattle.

''What was unusual is that they wanted to move it out of a highly populated area. Actually, it was unacceptable.''

The shipment would have brought the Port of Olympia an $8,000 profit, said the port's marine terminal manager, John Wolfe.

Port Executive Director Nick Handy said he wasn't aware of any ammonium nitrate ever moving through the port, which mostly handles forest products.

Coast Guard policy requires a safety radius of 3,990 feet for explosives with a net weight of more than 100,000 pounds.

The Port of Olympia is surrounded by residential areas, marinas and businesses that would have been difficult to evacuate in an emergency, the Coast Guard said in a June 13 letter.

After the denial, a rival shipper, Tacoma-based NorWest Explosives, moved the explosives from Mason County to a rural quarry site in Skagit County for shipment out of sparsely populated Padilla Bay near La Conner.

''It takes a TNT booster to set this stuff off. You have to use an explosive of the highest caliber,'' said NorWest explosives expert Greg Baxley.

The Coast Guard's concern was mostly the sheer size of the shipment, and the potential explosion if something did set it off.

''This chemical has a high propagation,'' O'Malley added. ''If one (container) goes off, the other goes off.''

Cominco plans a shipment of 2.3 million more pounds of the chemical next week. The cargo will travel by rail from Wyoming to Tukwila, and by truck to the quarry, before it is barged out of Padilla Bay.

Skagit County's director of emergency management, Tom Sheahan, said a permit has been issued by the county fire marshal. The shipper is still awaiting a Coast Guard permit, which O'Malley anticipates will be approved.



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