Ammonia was used to chill huge Finley cold storage warehouse. Where did it go in the fire?

Black smoke billowing from the cold storage warehouse fire in Finley this weekend carried burning plastic and other potentially toxic building materials into the air, including anhydrous ammonia.

About 14,000 pounds of ammonia, which was used as a refrigerant at the frozen vegetable warehouse, was lost in the fire, the Washington Department of Ecology confirmed Tuesday to the Tri-City Herald.

Benton County Fire District 1 fielded numerous questions from the public about a possible ammonia release, said Jenna Kochenauer, the district’s public information officer.

Ammonia is caustic and hazardous when released in large volumes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which notes that it is difficult to ignite and that its smell tends to drive people away before concentration levels become dangerous.

During the fire at Lineage Logistics on Sunday, area neighborhoods were evacuated. And on Monday, area schools pivoted to indoor activities to keep kids and staff from breathing the smoke.

Stephanie May, communications manager for the state Ecology department, said about 28,000 pounds of ammonia were on the Lineage property when the fire started in a freezer Sunday. About half was circulating in the refrigeration system plumbing and was lost. The balance was in a tank that firefighters aggressively worked to save.

Crews focused on the cinder block building that contained the tank, spraying water from all sides to keep it from releasing into the air, Kochenauer confirmed.

Aerial images posted by the Benton County Sheriff’s Office indicate the building remained cool, she added. The ammonia stored in the tank was removed safely on Monday.

May said Ecology employees placed stationary meters around the property Sunday evening. As of Tuesday, no ammonia had been detected. The meters will remain in place through Thursday, she said.

Currently, the air is safe to breath near the site, 224905 E. Bowles Road. However, visitors should use face protection if confronted with dense smoke.

All smoke is toxic, Kochenauer noted.

Tri-City air quality

Kochenauer said the fire district expects the smoldering to continue at the partly collapsed building for the remainder of the week.

The dramatic plume of smoke, visible from at least 50 miles in all directions, barely registered on the Ecology department’s air quality monitoring stations that dot the state. The system gives a regional view of air quality and is not intended to offer the hyper-local look provided by the temporary, stationary ones.

The regional monitors do provide a view of how the Lineage fire plume spread across the Tri-Cities on Monday as the fire continued to smolder.

A monitor at the Tri-Tech Skills Center in central Kennewick briefly spiked to unhealthy levels at 11 a.m. Monday. The air quality index rose to 108, a level that is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

By noon, it had receded to moderate and by 2 p.m. air quality was back in the “good” zone.

Air quality is considered healthy up to 50, moderate at 51, unhealthy at 151, very unhealthy at 201 and hazardous at 301.

Air quality in Burbank, across the Columbia River from the warehouse fire, remained in the “good” zone during the most active phase of the fire Sunday evening and overnight, according to a monitor on Maple Street. Monday morning, it briefly tipped into the “moderate” yellow zone when reached a level of 52. It swiftly dropped back.

Cause unknown

No cause has been made public, and it is not yet clear when investigators will be able to enter the charred, partially collapsed building. Kochenauer said Lineage officials have indicated they intend to bring in a team to assess the situation once it is safe.

A spokeswoman for Lineage, which changed its name from Lineage Logistics last week, could not be reached about the fire and its plans at the facility.

Lineage is a global warehousing company based in Detroit, Mich., operates 400 warehouses in 18 countries, focusing on temperature controlled facilities that handle food products.

Its cold storage plant on Bowles Road is one of several in the Tr-Cities area. Others are in Richland, Pasco and Prosser.

Benton County assessor records indicate the building was more than 525,400 square feet, though it is not clear how much of that is cold storage, office or other support facilities.

It is valued at nearly $21.7 million for property tax purposes, but rebuilding it would cost far more.

Even the most conservative cost estimate for warehouse construction indicates it would cost more than $80 million to replace a warehouse of that size in this region, according to RLB, which provides construction cost data.

The loss of the Kennewick cold storage facility will be felt by customers who rely on it to handle frozen foods, according to John Chang, senior vice president and national director for research services for Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services.

The vacancy rate for cold storage facilities in Washington was 2.3% in March, well below the national average. And there are no significant projects being built or even planned in Washington.

“The lack of speculative builds suggests Lineage will likely either have to rebuild its existing facility, construct a new built-to-suit project, or seek out existing space in Washington, which is becoming even harder to obtain,” Chang told the Tri-City Herald.

Cold storage warehouses are part of a “cold chain” that extends from the farm to consumer with stops at food processors, cold storage warehouses and distribution facilities.

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