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US supermarket to pay $400k for refrigerant leaks

USA: A New York City supermarket chain has agreed to pay a $400,000 penalty for leaking 19 tonnes of R22 and R404A refrigerant over a three-year period. 

The civil lawsuit filed by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York against Gristede’s Foods NY Inc alleged violations of the Clean Air Act and the US EPA’s Recycling and Emissions Reduction Rule (RER).

The RER rule requires supermarkets to properly monitor, repair, and document refrigerant leaks in their commercial refrigeration equipment so that emissions of regulated refrigerants can be identified and eliminated.

The violations covered by the lawsuit occurred between 2019 and 2021, when Gristedes owned and operated a chain of approximately 20 supermarkets in New York City.

Each of Gristedes’ supermarkets used regulated refrigerants, but Gristedes ignored the RER rule’s requirements by not calculating leak rates when adding new refrigerant, not repairing appliances that were leaking at significant rates, failing to conduct verification testing to ensure that any repairs were effective, not monitoring repaired equipment to determine whether leaks resumed, and failing to retire equipment with chronic leaks that could not be repaired successfully.

The RER rule requires owners and operators of commercial refrigeration equipment to repair appliances with a leak rate in excess of 20% within 30 days. An appliance leaking in excess of 125% of its full charge in a calendar year also has to be reported to the EPA, including the efforts made to identify leaks and repair the appliance.

Gristedes was accused of  routinely failing to repair appliances that exceeded the 20% legal rate threshold. In one particular case in 2020, a leaking appliance with  a full charge of 1000lbs (454kg) of R22, had a total of 240lbs (109kg) of refrigerant added in four separate interventions in just one month. 

Gristedes subsequently failed to repair its appliance until almost two months later. During the month’s delay, the leak required an additional 300lbs (136kg) of R22 to be added.

An appliance at another store, with a full charge of 200lbs of R22, leaked 646lbs (293kg) of refrigerant in 2019 — a leak rate of 323%.

According to the lawsuit, the limited records that Gristedes had maintained suggest that it had a corporate-wide leak rate of 40% in 2019, 59% in 2020, and 46% in 2021. The average leak rate across the US supermarket industry is roughly 25%, with companies enrolled in the EPA’s GreenChill programme reducing leaks to an average of 12.9%.

In total, between 2019 and 2021, Gristedes was said to have emitted 42,094lbs (19 tonnes) of regulated refrigerants—the vast majority of which was the ozone-depleting HCFC greenhouse gas R22 and the high GWP HFC refrigerant R404A. 

Under the consent decree, Gristedes will pay a penalty of $400,000, an amount based on the company’s documented inability to pay the full civil penalty for which it otherwise would have been liable. The consent decree also requires the company to undertake repairs of its commercial refrigeration equipment with an estimated cost of $13.5m, to adopt a comprehensive refrigerant compliance management plan, to convert three stores to utilise refrigerants with a GWP of 150 or less and to lower its corporate leak-rate to below 16%.  

Commenting on the case, US attorney Damian Williams said: “As a result of our lawsuit, Gristedes is now required to reduce its emissions by over 70% from their 2020 levels to offset at least some of the damage it has caused, and it will face significant additional penalties under the consent decree if it fails to do so.”

Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign director of the Environmental Investigation Agency commented: “Supermarkets have no excuse to continue using and leaking potent climate pollutants. Our investigations showed how Gristedes was failing to control these preventable emissions, violating laws and damaging our planet. This legal action is a welcome warning to companies that there are serious consequences to climate inaction.”

Gristedes no longer uses R22.

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