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$330k fine for fatal ammonia release

USA: A California wine maker has agreed to pay a $330,000 fine and make improvements of $300,000 following a fatal ammonia leak at its facility in Sanger in 2012.

The agreement between the US Department of Justice and the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Gibson Wine Co resolves federal environmental violations related to an anhydrous ammonia release at its winemaking facility that led to the death of one of Gibson Wine’s workers. Gibson Wine will pay a $330,000 civil penalty and is required to make a series of improvements to its facility valued at approximately $300,000.

The facility experienced a 284lb (129kg) release of ammonia from its refrigeration system in September 2012. The incident is said to have occurred when a worker attempted to defrost an ammonia chiller and opened the oil valve instead of the hot gas valve. The worker was unable to close the valve and called for an evacuation of the building. One contract employee was overcome by the ammonia cloud. The evacuated employees attempted a rescue but could not locate the necessary emergency response equipment. The contract employee died from exposure to the ammonia.

A subsequent inspection of the facility, the EPA says it found that Gibson Wine violated the Clean Air Act by failing to identify hazards, design and maintain a safe facility, and minimise the consequences of an accidental release.

Some of the hazards EPA’s inspectors found were: a lack of readily available devices to prevent a release of ammonia from oil drain lines; inadequate operating procedures and insufficient employee training; lack of labelling that would allow operators to identify ammonia refrigeration system pipes and equipment.

The company also failed to immediately notify the National Response Centre and the California Office of Emergency Services as soon as it knew of the release, in violation of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

“Facilities using extremely hazardous substances such as ammonia must abide by federal laws to protect the safety of workers, emergency responders, and the community to avoid such deadly or other serious accidental chemical releases,” said Alexis Strauss, EPA’s acting regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “This case is part of EPA’s high-priority work to reduce the risks of accidental releases at industrial and chemical facilities through compliance assistance and enforcement of good chemical management practices.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the company will install a computer control system for its ammonia refrigeration system, with automated controls and alarms; move one of its ammonia refrigeration systems to a safer location that is farther away from employee bathrooms, offices, and a breakroom; conduct an audit of ammonia refrigeration equipment to identify any further improvements that Gibson Wine must undertake; and label refrigeration pipes and equipment.

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