WASHINGTON – Suiza Dairy has agreed to pay a penalty and make significant upgrades to settle Clean Air Act violations, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today. The case stems from violations at two Suiza Dairy Corporation dairies located in Rio Piedras and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, including two major releases of anhydrous ammonia from the Rio Piedras facility.
The Clean Air Act violations stem from Suiza’s failure of its general duty of care to identify hazards and to maintain safe facilities and its failure to comply with regulatory requirements for process safety management under the Clean Air Act, as well as Suiza’s failure to comply with administrative orders at both facilities.
“This settlement penalizes Suiza for violations of the Clean Air Act that resulted in two illegal releases of poisonous gas that put the community at risk, including one release that caused the hospitalization of several residents,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General of the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. “Today’s agreement will prevent future violations of the Clean Air Act safety standards by requiring Suiza to upgrade its refrigeration technology and emergency notification system.”
“Reducing toxics in the air is a priority for the EPA. These facilities were very poorly run and the communities around them suffered as a result, with some people being sickened by a major release of ammonia into the air,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “This settlement requires the company to comply with the law and not jeopardize people’s health.”
As part of the consent decree announced today, Suiza will pay a penalty of $275,000. Suiza will also spend approximately $3.75 million on projects that will significantly improve the refrigeration systems at both facilities, considerably reduce the amount of anhydrous ammonia in the systems at both facilities, improve alarm and ammonia release notification procedures, and provide medical training and/or equipment to medical personnel to treat persons affected by exposure to anhydrous ammonia. Suiza will also conduct community emergency drills in the communities located adjacent to the facilities, to train community members on what to do in the event of an accidental release of anhydrous ammonia.
Suiza’s first accidental ammonia release from the Rio Piedras facility was in July 2005. Then in May 2007, approximately 1,146 pounds of anhydrous ammonia was released into the atmosphere causing at least 14 residents from the community located near the Rio Piedras Facility to require medical attention. At least nine of the people requiring medical attention also required an overnight stay in the local hospital.
Following these releases, and complaints from residents near the Aguadilla facility, EPA submitted information requests to Suiza and conducted multiple inspections at both facilities. In September 2007, EPA issued Suiza administrative orders for both facilities, ordering Suiza to bring the facilities into compliance. Suiza failed to comply with both orders.
As a result of Suiza’s failure to comply with the orders and the substantive violations at both facilities, EPA reinspected both facilities in May and October 2009. Over 40 violations were identified at each facility; violations included, for example: corrosion to anhydrous ammonia transfer lines, failure to implement an adequate alarm system, improper labeling of valves and equipment, and improper ventilation.
The settlement requires Suiza to implement over 40 compliance measures at each facility to address the violations. In addition, the company has agreed to spend at least $3 million to reduce the amount of anhydrous ammonia used in the refrigeration process at the facilities, from approximately 18,000 pounds to less than 8,400 pounds at the Rio Piedras facility (54 percent reduction) and from 4,700 pounds to less than 3,300 pounds at the Aguadilla facility (30 percent reduction). Suiza will also install an enhanced alarm system at the Aguadilla facility that will continuously monitor anhydrous ammonia operating pressures, temperatures and levels, as well as automatically alert operators to conditions not within normal operational ranges for these parameters.
Justice Department and the EPA conducted community meetings near both facilities in August 2011. Partly as a result of that outreach, and the suggestions made by community members at those meetings, Suiza has agreed to conduct community emergency drills in the communities located adjacent to the facilities. Suiza will coordinate with first responders and EPA to simulate an accidental anhydrous ammonia release and train community members on what to do in the event of such a release.
Enforcement of the general duty of care and of the regulatory requirements under Section 112(r)(1) and (7) of the Clean Air Act is critical to ensuring that industry focuses on the safety of the public and the environment.
The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30 day public comment period and final court approval. The consent decree may be viewed on the Department of Justice website: www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.