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Food producer fined $650,000 for ammonia violations

USA: Food producer Taylor Farms New England will pay $650,000 to settle chemical accident prevention violations related to the use of ammonia in its refrigeration systems.

The settlement reached with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Justice Department resolves alleged violations of the Clean Air Act and Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act at the company’s food processing facility in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. 

In addition to the civil penalty, the company will ensure that 19 of its other facilities are audited to assess whether their ammonia refrigeration systems are being safely designed and operated.   

Taylor Farm’s Rhode Island facility uses approximately 16,000lbs (7,257kg) of anhydrous ammonia as a refrigerant. During an EPA inspection in 2019, the EPA identified numerous concerns, including that the facility’s evaporators were not protected from potential forklift impacts – even though the company’s own hazard analysis had recommended protecting certain evaporators from impacts.

Subsequently, in April 2020 an ammonia release occurred when a forklift bumped into an evaporator located in a fruit storage room. The company had moved the evaporator to this location after conducting its initial process hazard analysis and had failed to identify the need to protect the evaporator prior to starting its operations. 

The incident resulted in hundreds of employees being evacuated, a road being shut down, food destroyed, and 14 employees requiring medical evaluation at a local hospital. EPA issued an administrative compliance order to the facility on June 11, 2020, to require the company to correct CAA and EPCRA violations and EPA subsequently referred the case to the Department of Justice. EPA also coordinated with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which issued its own citations.

Some of the key violations alleged in the complaint include failure to identify hazards, including from changes made to the facility; failure to timely follow through on recommendations made in the company’s process hazard analysis; failure to document compliance with recognised and generally accepted good engineering practices; and failure to adequately coordinate with local emergency response and planning organisations.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Taylor Farms will pay $650,000 in penalties, implement  specific safety improvements at  the North Kingstown facility, evaluate whether the facility’s existing safety measures are adequate given employee language barriers, evaluate whether the facility’s location in a storm surge evacuation zone and in an area subject to hurricane-force winds poses risks that should be assessed, and conduct safety audits of the ammonia refrigeration systems at  19 other facilities in the corporate family nationwide. 

Taylor Farms completed most of the compliance work needed at the Rhode Island facility after EPA issued its compliance order in 2020. 

Taylor Farms New England manufactures and stores perishable prepared foods for grocery stores and other retail businesses at a decommissioned naval air base in North Kingstown. 

The facility is in a hurricane evacuation zone. A worst-case release of ammonia from the facility could affect other businesses, a residential area, an elementary school, an airport, and a Rhode Island Air National Guard base. 

Hundreds of people work at the facility, many of whom are not native English-speakers. 

The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court.

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