January 24, 2017

Maine blueberry processor reaches settlement with EPA

The owner of a blueberry processing facility in Hancock, Maine, has come into compliance with federal requirements designed to protect the public and first responders from exposure to hazardous chemicals, under the terms of a recent settlement with EPA.

Hancock Foods operates a blueberry processing plant and cold storage warehouse in Hancock, where it uses anhydrous ammonia in its refrigeration systems. The facility first submitted a “Risk Management Plan” (RMP) in March 1999. Such a plan is required for all facilities using certain amounts of extremely hazardous substances, including anhydrous ammonia, in order to help local fire, police, and emergency response personnel prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies. The RMP regulations also require facilities to prevent chemical releases by designing and operating their chemical processes in a safe manner.

In the settlement, Hancock Foods, Inc. agreed to pay $103,613 to settle claims that it violated Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act in its handling of anhydrous ammonia and $5,110 to settle claims it violated the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act – or Superfund law – when it failed to timely report a release of anhydrous ammonia.

The case stems from a 2012 inspection of Hancock Foods in which EPA inspectors saw potentially dangerous conditions relating to the ammonia refrigeration processes. Further, the company failed to immediately notify the National Response Center upon discovering a release of about 300 pounds of ammonia from a refrigeration unit on March 27, 2015. EPA responded to the violations at Hancock in two stages – first ensuring that the CAA violations were addressed in an administrative compliance order, then following up with a penalty action.

Anhydrous ammonia is an efficient refrigerant with many environmental benefits, but it must be used with care because it is corrosive to the skin, eyes, and lungs, according to EPA. Ammonia is also flammable under certain conditions. It can explode if released in an enclosed space when there is a source of ignition, or if a vessel holding anhydrous ammonia is exposed to fire. A large ammonia release can spread through the air to impact neighbors.

The Hancock Foods case is one of many that EPA has brought to improve safety at companies that have industrial refrigeration systems. Given the number of dangerous ammonia leaks that have occurred at such facilities, EPA has started a national enforcement and compliance initiative for the next three years to focus more intensely on reducing the risks of chemical releases from various types of facilities that use extremely hazardous chemicals, including those that use anhydrous ammonia as a refrigerant.