Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Fourteen tree fruit packers in eastern Washington State have together paid more than $600,000 in penalties over the past two years for not having a proper risk management plan in place for the ammonia they use in their cold-storage facilities.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations under the Clean Air Act require that facilities using more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia have a risk management plan and develop a risk management program.

Anhydrous ammonia has the potential to be one of the most dangerous chemicals used in refrigeration and agriculture, according to the EPA. It can cause runny eyes, inflammation of the respiratory ­system, and permanent damage to lungs.

Few problems occur when the ammonia is handled and applied as intended, but most accidents with it result from uncontrolled releases, the EPA states.

The main causes of uncontrolled releases are improper procedures, careless or untrained workers, or faulty equipment.

The EPA’s Region 10 (covering Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) reports that of the facilities that have failed to submit a required risk management plan in the region, close to 90 percent are located in eastern Washington.

Tree fruit packers have paid penalties ranging from $200 to almost $90,000. The penalties are usually based on the severity of the violation and the amount of economic benefit a violator received from failing to comply with the law. Kelly Huynh, head of the Planning, Preparedness and Prevention Team in the EPA’s regional Emergency Response Unit in Seattle, Washington, said the larger the company and the greater its net worth, the larger the fine is likely to be. The EPA recognizes that smaller companies don’t have the same ability to pay.

Huynh said that the EPA has worked through refrigeration companies and trade associations, including the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, to get the word out that large ammonia users must have risk management plans.

A risk management plan must include:

• An emergency response or action plan
• Evaluation of the hazards of a "worst case" and "more probable case" release
• Operator training
• A review of the hazards of using toxic or flammable substances
• Appropriate operating procedures and equipment maintenance

The regulations have been in force since 1999, therefore, the EPA is no longer doing mass mailings to industry about the requirements, but information is available on its Web site.

Huynh said the EPA inspects facilities throughout the four-state region to make sure they are complying with the regulations. Its priorities are those that have had releases in the past or are in a situation where a release could potentially impact a large population.

The EPA also checks "Tier II" chemical inventory reports (which companies must submit under different regulations to emergency responders), to identify companies whose ammonia use is above the 10,000-pound threshold. Those that have not submitted risk management plans to the EPA may be asked for more information or be inspected.

The EPA’s self-disclosure policy allows users to disclose to the EPA if they are in violation, Huynh said.

"Some may have identified that they are out of compliance, but they’re scared to do anything. If they determine on their own that they have over 10,000 pounds of ammonia in one system, they can call us up and tell us about it, and have a plan in place to come into compliance; it significantly reduces or completely eliminates any penalty."

Revenue from fines goes to the U.S. Treasury Department. However, violators can elect to have a portion of their penalty go towards a "supplemental environmental project" (SEP) to prevent exposure of the public to ammonia releases or allow emergency responders to better respond to an ammonia release. Some companies choose to do that, because they would prefer the money go back into their communities, although they only receive 80 percent credit for money spent on SEPs.

Keith Mathews, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, said operators of fruit packing houses in central Washington generally want to comply with legal requirements from the federal government.

"It appears to me that this industry was not well informed," he said. "My perception is that the packers—at least in the Yakima community—didn’t understand the requirements."

He said the industry would have appreciated more notice about the requirements and the consequences of not having a plan in place.

Huynh said the EPA issues press releases about violators to local and state media, though not to the trade press, but Mathews said there was little mention in the news to warn other packers.

"People didn’t have a chance to say, ‘The guy down the street got a $100,000 fine. We’d better get on it.’ "

In addition, it seemed unfair that the size of the business seems to be a driver in the size of the fine, rather than the magnitude of the risk, Mathews added. He also questioned what the economic benefit might be to a company of not having a risk management program in place.

"Granted, they may have saved a $50,000 job for two years, but I don’t see a significant economic benefit from that," he said.

During the past year, the following seven eastern Washington fruit companies have been fined for significant violations: Columbia Reach Pack, Chiawana, Inc., Yakima ($58,000); Cowiche Growers, Inc., Yakima ($17,538 plus $43,615 SEP); Tree Top, Inc., Prosser ($89,067); Cascade View Fruit and Cold Storage, Yakima ($81,193); Roy Farms, Inc., Moxee ($29,320 plus $84,120 SEP); Borton and Sons, Inc., Yakima ($16,746 plus $53,544 SEP); and Dovex Fruit Company, Wenatchee ($98,241).

In 2006 and 2007, six other fruit packing or processing companies in eastern Washington were fined much smaller amounts for minor violations, according to information from the EPA.

For information about risk management plans, check the Web site at www .epa.gov/oecaagct/trmp.html.

Information on EPA’s audit (self-­disclosure) policy can be found at www .epa.gov/oecaerth/incentives/auditing/auditpolicy.html.