Power outage shuts down Spit, other Homer areas

An electrical equipment failure shut down power from the Safeway grocery store on the Sterling Highway to the end of the Homer Spit on Monday afternoon. Power was out from about 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 5.

Related to the outage, Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins ordered a precautionary evacuation and closure of the Fish Dock Road area about noon after Kevin Hogan of the Auction Block notified police and other officials that there could be a carbon dioxide leak in his refrigeration plant. The loss of power caused a pressure build up in the unit, Hawkins said.

On the advice of Hogan, Hawkins ordered evacuation of a 200-foot area of the Auction Block, including the fuel dock, the fish dock, and Fish Dock and Ice Dock roads. Cranes on the Fish Dock were not working because of the loss of power anyway. Harbor officers blocked roads into the area and fire department staff were on scene monitoring the situation. Boats could still enter and leave the harbor. The Pioneer Dock and Land’s End Resort were not evacuated.

Unlike an evacuation in July 1998 when Icicle Seafoods burned after ammonia leaking from a refrigeration unit caught on fire, the rest of the Spit was not evacuated.

Hogan said the CO2 pressure built up in the blast freezer unit of his cooling system. When the pressure builds up, it’s designed to release CO2 slowly at the rate of 28 pounds a minute. About 800 pounds of pressure had built up. CO2 — a common gas in the atmosphere and what’s exhaled by humans and animals — is nontoxic, the reason Hogan said he chose a plant using CO2 and not ammonia, as was used at Icicle Seafoods.

“If there’s a leak, there’s no big deal,” Hogan said. “It’s not like dumping a bunch of ammonia.”

Hogan said he followed the Auction Block’s contingency plan for dealing with a possible CO2 leak.

“If we have a power outage, we prepare for a release of CO2,” he said. “We probably overreacted a little bit.”

The concern with CO2 is that it’s heavier than air and displaces oxygen. In a confined space, people can suffocate from a CO2 leak. Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter said that’s the reason city officials closed the area.

Hogan said that the release valve is 20 feet off the ground and would release in small amounts visible as a cloud of vapor. The C02 would disperse quickly, he said. After talking to the cooling unit manufacturer later, Hogan determined that a 30-foot safety zone would have been sufficient. 

“Erring on the side of caution is always more prudent,” Hogan said.

The pressure turned out to be close to releasing but did not actually release by the time power was restored, Hogan said.

The outage affected customers along the Sterling Highway from Safeway to the Spit, on Lake Street and in the Ocean Drive area, as well as parts of Diamond Ridge, East Hill and downtown Homer. Power also was out across Kachemak Bay from Tutka Bay to Halibut Cove, said Homer Electric Association spokesman Joe Gallagher. Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek got power from the Gerry Willard Generation Plant in Seldovia during the outage. About 900 meters were without power during the outage.

A failure in a junction box at Elderberry Drive  and Mountainview Avenue caused the outage, Gallagher said.

“It was a piece of equipment that failed. It needed to be replaced,” he said. “Unfortunately, it left a lot of customers without power.”

The Spit evacuation was lifted about 3:15 p.m. after power was restored and pressure was reduced in the Auction Block refrigeration unit, Hawkins said. 

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.