The duration of the violation
Violations for a failure to report a leak generally range from
thousands of dollars up to the low-six figures if there are mul-
tiple violations. We commonly see EPA fine between $10,000
and $30,000 for failure to report or substantial delay.
Penalties for a release that EPA attributes to a violation of
the General Duty Clause vary significantly based upon the
specific facts. It is not unusual, however, to see penalties in
the low six figures, with penalties in the millions where people are injured or killed. EPA’s focus on General Duty Clause
violations has increased recently, as evidenced by the adoption
of an enforcement policy tailored to such violations last June.
EPA may also seek injunctive relief, which can add substantially to cost. Such relief can range from a requirement for
third-party compliance audits to replacing entire refrigeration
systems with safer equipment, at a cost of millions.
Ammonia is hazardous and a leak can cause injury or death.
Facilities must recognize this hazard and devote appropriate
resources to ensuring that their systems are safe, including:
Prioritizing routine maintenance of refrigeration systems
Promptly implementing needed capital improvements
Implementing a robust Risk Management Program,
whether required by the Clean Air Act or not, that engages
employees and is not a rote annual exercise
Training employees to report releases promptly to the
authorities and, where there is any ambiguity in the reporting
requirement, always err on the side of reporting ◆
that former industrial areas are redeveloped with commercial
and residential buildings. As a result, the number of people at
risk from an ammonia release outside of industrial settings has
increased. Off-site injuries or deaths lead to higher penalties
and increased media coverage.
What safety precautions should a food facility take regarding its ammonia refrigeration system? Q:
What are some common causes of ammonia leaks in food
There is no single recipe for ammonia leaks. The chemical
leaks we see in our legal practice typically are caused by a
facility-specific chain of events, often as a result of multiple
underlying issues. One or more of four common themes often
Operator error, such as inexperienced or hurried employ-
ees or contractors opening incorrect valves or applying water
to pooled anhydrous ammonia
The use of inconsistent materials (whether in original
installation or in repair work) in the refrigeration system, such
as brass, that are subject to corrosion and ultimate failure
when exposed to ammonia
A lack of routine maintenance or necessary capital
improvements over an extended period of time
Industrial accidents, for example, breaches of ammonia-
containing pipes with a forklift
J. Tom Boer is a partner at Barg Coffin Lewis & Trapp, LLP
– a San Francisco-based law firm providing nationally recognized expertise in environmental law and litigation. He can be
reached at email@example.com or www.bcltlaw.com.
Interview by Lindsey Jahn, Associated Editor
Ammonia leaks at food plants seem to have been popping
up in the news lately. Why do you think this is? Are ammonia leaks occurring more frequently?
It is hard to say whether ammonia leaks are occurring more
frequently, or whether enforcement and media coverage of
leaks has increased. One reason there may be more leaks is
that the recession may have contributed to a reduction in routine maintenance and capital improvements to refrigeration
systems, or a reduction in the number of employees supporting those systems. Also, many ammonia refrigeration systems
are, quite simply, aging and, without substantial capital investment, face an increasing risk of failure.
There are two other trends that contribute to the higher
profile of leaks when they do occur. First, EPA is increasing
its enforcement in response to ammonia leaks, evidenced by
an increase in the number of cases pursued by EPA, increasing penalties sought by EPA for leaks and identification of
ammonia refrigeration system compliance as an enforcement
priority in a number of EPA regions. Second, urban redevelopment has changed land use around many food facilities so