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EPA to crack down on ammonia plants

30548975_sUSA: The US Environmental Protection Agency is to crack down on refrigeration facilities that are failing to implement procedures to prevent the release of ammonia.

An enforcement alert has been issued by the government agency to operators of ammonia refrigeration facilities after the EPA’s own investigations suggested that some refrigeration facilities might be failing to properly manage hazardous chemicals, including anhydrous ammonia, as required by the US Clean Air Act.

According to the EPA, deficient chemical accident prevention practices at some refrigeration facilities have resulted in a number releases of ammonia into surrounding communities. It highlights that, since 2012, illegal ammonia releases at 14 different refrigeration facilities have resulted in property damage, numerous injuries and hospitalisations and several deaths.

EPA responded to these incidents with enforcement actions, imposing over $8.5m in civil penalties. In addition, companies were required to spend approximately $10m on supplemental environmental projects, including purchasing equipment and providing training for emergency responders as well as converting refrigeration equipment to safer technologies.

In one highlighted case in 2012, a company in San Francisco was forced to spend $6m on safety improvements to its refrigeration system and pay a $645,446 penalty following two releases, each of over 90kg of ammonia, in 2009. The second incident affected 30 people, 17 requiring hospital attention, caused the evacuation of local businesses, the shut down of several local streets and the  off-ramps from the local highway.

“These enforcement actions send a clear message to the industry that companies must take responsibility to prevent accidental releases of dangerous substances like anhydrous ammonia through compliance with the CAA’s Chemical Accident Prevention Program,” the EPA says in a statement. 

To help with compliance, the EPA has highlighted risk management programme regulations, the general duty clause and industry standards as aspects of the Clean Air Act’s Chemical Accident Prevention Programme that require attention.

According to the EPA, some facilities may not be fully implementing risk management programmes that are required for any facility with more than 10,000lbs (4,536kg) of ammonia. Evidence also suggests that some facilities may not be taking the necessary steps to design and maintain safe facilities or take precautions to minimise the consequences of an accidental ammonia release.

The EPA maintains that its focus on focus on enforcement has prevented a number of chemical accidents in recent years. In November 2012, the EPA reached an agreement with the Olympic Fruit Company of Union Gap, Washington, after alleged violations by the company of risk management requirements. Olympic Fruit agreed to spend $40,659 to install new ammonia detection sensors, safety shut-off valves, and an emergency pressure control system as well as pay a civil penalty of $33,964. The company also agreed to purchase a hand-held ammonia detector for a local fire department.

In December 2012, an inspection at Millbrook Cold Storage, in Somerville, Massachusetts, revealed dangerous conditions at the facility, including dangerous amounts of ice that made valves inaccessible, absence of a qualified operator to run or maintain the system, and lack of documentation explaining how the system worked. The EPA issued an administrative order which  required the company to hire a refrigeration expert to review and address the hazards associated with the refrigeration system.

Ice manufacturer Reddy Ice Corporation of Dallas came to an agreement with the EPA in May 2013 to resolve allegedly failing to ensure that ammonia storage vessels were constructed according to safe engineering standards and for inadequately implementing the required accident prevention programme at its facility located in Denver, Colorado. In addition to taking the necessary corrective action, the company also paid a $61,500 civil penalty.

In May 2014, the EPA reached a settlement with Cold Storage Solutions Inc and three sister companies operating a cold storage warehouse in Lakeville, Massachusetts. The complaints alleged violations of its general duty of care requirements involving failures to identify hazards, not maintaining sufficient documentation to safely operate systems, failing to employ adequate basic safety practices and not having adequate emergency mechanisms and response plans in place. To compound the problem, a small release of ammonia occurred at one of the facilities while the EPA inspectors were actually on site, requiring an evacuation. In addition to a civil penalty of $108,000, the companies corrected the identified deficiencies and agreed to spend $346,800 to enhance the safety of the neighbouring communities.

A copy of the enforcement alert can be viewed here.

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