Valdez processor faces new charges

Owner of Nautilus Seafoods has 20-year history of pollution violations

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE - A Valdez seafood processor with a history of pollution and permit violations is in trouble with the government again.

Both the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with a list of new complaints, are seeking penalties from Thomas Waterer, owner of Nautilus Foods of Valdez.

Both agencies have said Waterer, of Bellevue, Wash., is a chronic polluter with violations dating back to at least 1982.

Last month, state officials sent Waterer a violation notice, alleging he smoked salmon without a permit and under unsanitary conditions.

The case stems from a June 2001 inspection in which a DEC official found Waterer running a smoking operation in a facility owned by the Pipeline Club, a popular bar and restaurant in Valdez. Waterer hadn't told DEC about the business, didn't have a permit and was handling the fish improperly, the state alleges.

Waterer said he thought the Pipeline Club's foodservice permit covered him and that he had applied for a smoking permit. DEC officials said no application was on file at the time.

A state prosecutor who handles environmental crimes for DEC filed a two-count criminal case against Waterer in November 2001 alleging criminal negligence for smoking fish without a permit. But a judge dismissed it, finding that DEC should have given Waterer an opportunity to respond and fix the problems before launching a criminal case.

In a letter mailed in late February, DEC officials put Waterer on notice that they believe he committed two misdemeanors, each punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. They gave Waterer a month to respond before deciding whether to take the case back to prosecutors.

The EPA is simultaneously going after Waterer and seeking the largest fine possible under the federal Clean Water Act. The federal agency wants Waterer to pay $137,000 for:

• Failing to have permits on site at the Valdez plant during inspections in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

• Discharging sludge, scum, fish guts, heads and other waste illegally.

• Having a leaky outfall pipe.

• Failing to do shoreline monitoring.

• Exceeding a one-acre limit for underwater fish waste.

Waterer had 30 days to respond to the December complaint. On Feb. 14, EPA attorneys filed a default motion asking the court to find Waterer guilty because they had not heard from him. In late February, a lawyer for Waterer formally denied EPA's allegations. The case is proceeding.

The EPA proposed a $19,400 fine against Waterer in 1992 for virtually the same type of pollution and permit issues he's facing now. The case was settled and Waterer paid $10,000, said Chris Cora, an EPA compliance officer in Seattle.

In June 1982, the state issued Waterer a violation notice for operating without a permit, according to DEC records. He complied and got a permit. Four years later, the state fined Waterer $1,000 for again processing without a permit.

The EPA's enforcement history with Waterer dates back almost as far.

In 1984, the EPA found that Waterer was dumping fish onto the shoreline and bypassing the outfall pipe, according to EPA records.

The way Waterer sees it, he's a scapegoat of overly zealous bureaucrats with time on their hands.

"We'll have the attorneys make a mockery of it," Waterer said. "I'm a busy, hardworking man, and I don't need this."

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