Columbus settles with Genentech over ammonia leak

Source: San Mateo County Times (CA), November 2, 2011
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Sausage maker Columbus Foods Inc. has settled a lawsuit filed by its neighbor Genentech over a large-scale noxious ammonia leak in South San Francisco that sickened nearly three dozen of the biotech giant’s employees in 2009. According to a statement from Genentech, the 94-year-old cured meat company agreed to “vigorous safety improvements” to its refrigeration system, which was the source of the leak. The cloud of anhydrous ammonia that escaped from the factory where Columbus makes salami and pancetta resulted in 30 Genentech workers getting medical treatment. The suit, settled Oct. 28, pointed specifically to a company bus driver who collapsed due to the ammonia cloud and had to be hospitalized, according to San Mateo County Superior Court records. The man, who drove one of the fleet of buses that ferries employees to and from work in the Bay Area, survived his injuries. About 200 pounds of the chemical shot out of the roof-mounted cooling system of the facility at 493 Forbes Blvd. on the morning of Aug. 28, 2009, during construction work. A contractor, who was not named, had recently made some changes to the system and it malfunctioned when turned on. The facility had a similarly sized ammonia leak on Feb. 17, 2009, but didn’t tell its neighbors, the suit says. The Environmental Protection Agency slammed Columbus in February 2009 for not following industry practices for ammonia refrigeration and ordered safety changes. Columbus later paid San Mateo County $850,000 to settle a separate lawsuit over the release. According to the EPA, exposure to ammonia can cause temporary blindness and eye damage as well as skin, mouth, throat and breathing problems. Extended exposure can cause death or major health problems. Columbus CEO Timothy Fallon declined to comment on the terms of the settlement, which he said were confidential. Genentech would not elaborate on the information in its statement. However Fallon said the company began work in September to transfer the rooftop refrigeration system to the inside of the building, where leaks can be contained. He said the company hoped to be done with the work by December. He added the contractor, and not the company, was to blame for the leak. “But ultimately it’s our property,” Fallon said. “The buck stops with us, I guess.” Genentech has about 10,000 employees roughly scattered throughout its 54-building campus in South San Francisco. On any given day about 700 children of employees are being looked after at the company daycare centers.

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