Questions remain after leak triggers chemical cloud, evacuations at Pier 38

Questions linger as to how a major ammonia leak happened at Pier 38 forcing the evacuation of more than a hundred people.

The leak occurred Monday afternoon at Hawaiian Ice Company, which uses ammonia as a refrigerant.

Nine people were treated at the scene and one man was sent to the hospital in serious condition.

So what went wrong, and could it have been prevented?

The Honolulu Fire Department determined that the leak came from the piping that was coming out of the ammonia tank, but it’s still not clear what caused it to malfunction.

“We isolated the section of the pipe that was leaking,” said HFD Battalion Chief John Bowers. “There was some equipment within the piping that caused the leak that failed.”

Hawaiian Ice Company owner Jim Cook tells us he’s been using the technology for 30 years and never had any problems before.

“This plant is probably the most modern ice plant in the United States,” he said. “It was built in 2008. It’s ultimate, computer-controlled fancy plant, and we just don’t know where this problem is.”

“So the machine is not old?” KHON2 asked.

“No, no. This is very modern, high-tech ice equipment,” Cook said.

Cook says he is flying in an expert on Wednesday to figure out exactly what went wrong, how to fix it, and prevent it from happening again.

It’s still not clear how much ammonia actually leaked out, but we’re told witnesses saw a big cloud coming out of the building, which showed that there was a high concentration of it. That cloud moved toward the restaurants, forcing everyone on Pier 38 to clear out.

“On the pier, as far as the smell, and then the smell got stronger and stronger, and pretty much in the dining room, and from that point, everyone got evacuated as fast as possible,” said Nico Chaize, owner of Nico’s Pier 38.

The state Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Division is investigating for possible worker safety violations. The state Department of Health is also investigating.

When asked about possible violations, Terry Corpus, with the Department of Health, responded, “At this point, I haven’t thought about the violations. I was more thinking about opening up the businesses around here as soon as possible, because we realize the impact economically it has.”

Those businesses have since reopened.

Corpus says if the company did anything wrong, it will be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency, which can then impose fines.

We’re also trying to find out if there was an alarm in the plant that supposed to notify the workers if a leak occurs, and if the company is required to have it.

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