Source: San Mateo County Times (CA), January 31, 2012
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com
A Bay Area meat-processing company has agreed to pay a $685,446 penalty and spend about $6 million on a new refrigeration unit as a result of two anhydrous ammonia leaks in 2009 at a South San Francisco facility, one of which injured nearly 30 people, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.
The total sum of nearly $7 million underscores the seriousness of the Clean Air Act violations by Columbus Manufacturing, said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator in San Francisco. The second leak, on Aug. 28, 2009, would likely have been much worse had it not occurred around 5:30 a.m. — before more people arrived for work and dropped their children off at three nearby day-care centers.
“Had the children been there at the time it could have been disastrous,” Blumenfeld said of the leak, during which 200 pounds of the toxic substance spewed from a rooftop cooling system.
As it was, the anhydrous ammonia leak caused the evacuation of neighboring Genentech, the closure of three Highway 101 exits, the hospitalization of 17 people and injuries to others.
Columbus experienced a slightly larger leak, about 217 pounds, in February 2009, but no injuries were reported. Exposure to the poisonous gas can cause damage to the eyes and respiratory tract and even death.
The nearly $700,000 penalty dwarfs the other fines the EPA has levied for similar violations in recent years in California. Aside from the Columbus case, the
agency has imposed a total of about $300,000 in penalties in 61 cases involving anhydrous ammonia over the past five years.
Columbus CEO Tim Fallon said the company is already nearing completion of the new refrigeration unit at the South San Francisco facility, where Columbus makes salami and deli meats for national distribution. The new system will use glycol and ammonia and is considered safer than the old technology.
Fallon said the leak, caused by a contractor upgrading the old refrigeration unit, was the first problem the company had at the 50-year-old South San Francisco facility.
“We’ve had a long track record of doing the right thing for the San Mateo community,” Fallon said. “Once this happened, it was unfortunate, but we were very aggressive in making it right with the regulatory agencies and Genentech, our neighbors.”
Columbus has already paid $850,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by San Mateo County and settled a separate suit brought by Genentech, the terms of which were not disclosed. Columbus has also agreed to improve its safety and release-notification procedures.
There are 35 facilities in the Bay Area and 502 in California with refrigeration units that contain 10,000 pounds or more of anhydrous ammonia, according to the EPA. Blumenfeld said the penalty against Columbus should send a message to the owners of the units about the seriousness of following safety procedures.