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Loss of potato processing plant blow to Grandview's economy

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An aerial view of Wild River Foods shows the magnitude of damage that resulted from yesterday's fire. The damage will have a ripple effect on the Grandview economy and unemployment rates.

GRANDVIEW - Grandview firefighters remain on scene at 206 Avenue A, the Wild River Foods potato processing plant, that caught fire at about 9 a.m. yesterday morning, Tuesday.

The fire was still smoldering as of this morning.

Grandview Deputy Fire Chief Dave Smith said it's likely the fire started in an electrical panel in the plant's engine room. The fire rapidly spread, creating a large plume of smoke and necessitating fire fighting assistance from throughout the valley, including Yakima, Union Gap and Hanford.

The plant is a total loss.

Toward the afternoon yesterday, a light wind carried smoke throughout the downtown area, forcing the closure of the municipal swimming pool, Yakima Valley Community College's Grandview campus and city hall.

According to Grandview firefighter George Saenz, some vessels containing oils the company uses to make french fries might have leaked and made its way down storm drains.

If that's the case, said Saenz, "That process has to be addressed and all the oil cleaned out."

A press release issued by the Washington Department of Ecology states that the fire caused the loss of approximately 18,000 pounds of ammonia and 10,000 gallons of soybean oil. Ecology officials are in the process of determining whether or not the oil entered storm drains and traveled to Sunnyside Irrigation District streams and ditches.

The press release also states that the company has hired a contractor to clean up and recover any oil in the city's system.

The plant is a significant factor in Grandview's economy. Last year, Wild River Foods was billed $686,101 for water and load-based sewer usage.

On top of that, said City Administrator Scott Staples, the plant's water and sewer utility tax billing is roughly $70,000 a year, which goes into the current expense, or general fund.

"What that means," said Staples, "Is the city will lose $35,000 in utility tax revenue. Because of the failure of the May 20 ballot, (council was) originally looking to trim $75,000. With the impact of the fire, we'll need to identify another $35,000 in service reduction."

He added, "Basically, the fire just made the (budgeting) situation more challenging."

The plant at 206 Avenue A was previously owned by Kenyon Zero Storage, according to Bill Moore. Moore said Ochoa Foods, the parent company of Wild River Foods, finalized the purchase of the building at the beginning of this past May.

Dennis Huth has worked at the plant for almost 40 years and was sitting in the break room when the fire broke out. "It didn't appear like much then," he said. "But you could hear the popping and crackling."

He praised the plant's human resource department for quickly determining that everyone made it out safely. "They actually had everybody accounted for before it looked serious."

Huth said that employment at the plant was "off and on" a couple of years ago. The plant had been operated by several different organizations, especially in the last decade. "For about 10 or 12 years there, they were opening and closing, opening and closing." He said that working for Wild River Foods has been an excellent, and stable, experience.

Huth said that officials from the unemployment office are expected at the plant this morning.

"I think they're probably doing it to ease everybody's mind."

Huth said the plant runs three shifts and that there are about 50 employees that work his shift, the day shift.

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