EPA Initiative Continues to Improve Safety of Ammonia Refrigeration Facilities in New England
Although anhydrous ammonia is an effective refrigerant, it is also a toxic chemical that can injure or kill people when accidentally released. The death of a worker at the Stavis Seafood plant in South Boston in 2016 is the most tragic example recently here in New England.
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a pilot initiative to improve compliance with the General Duty Clause (GDC) of Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act at New England facilities with small ammonia refrigeration systems. Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act aims to prevent accidental releases of substances that can cause serious harm to the public and the environment. Larger ammonia refrigeration facilities are subject to the Risk Management regulations issued by EPA, but facilities that use fewer than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia are subject to the three duties of the GDC instead. Region 1 estimates that approximately 80% of the ammonia refrigeration facilities in New England have fewer than 10,000 pounds of ammonia and so are subject to the GDC instead of the RMP regulations. Facilities that fail to comply with the requirements put facility personnel, employees of adjacent businesses, emergency responders, and the local population and environment at risk of harm from such releases.
Through its GDC Initiative, EPA Region 1 is working to improve compliance with the first GDC requirement -- that facilities must identify hazards that may result from accidental releases using appropriate hazard assessment techniques. EPA has completed three rounds of the GDC Initiative and has started a fourth. The effort features extensive compliance assistance activities, which have reached hundreds of facilities. This has included ammonia safety trainings in all six New England states, an ammonia refrigeration webinar, training specific to ice rinks, ammonia table-top emergency response exercises, and informative letters and emails to facilities with ammonia refrigeration systems and their contractors.
So far, EPA has also issued information request letters to 50 companies and entered into Expedited Settlement Agreements (ESAs) with seven facilities that had not yet completed process hazard reviews. In the latest two rounds, East Bay Ice Co., Inc. (East Providence, RI), Coke Northeast (East Hartford, CT), and United Natural Foods, Inc. (Chesterfield, NH) each resolved a GDC violation with a significantly reduced penalty for completing a process hazard review with assistance from a third-party expert and meeting with emergency responders to plan for a potential release from the facility. As a result, all 50 of the facilities thus far have reported that they are now in compliance with the first duty of the GDC, 34 of those (including the ESAs) occurring after the start of outreach about the Initiative. Also, EPA learned from course evaluation forms that more facilities planned to conduct a process hazard review.
Most refrigeration facilities also have an obligation to report presence of certain chemicals, including anhydrous ammonia, to emergency planning and response agencies under Section 312 of Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The goal is to ensure that emergency responders and planners know what chemicals are on site should they need to respond to an incident and that people in the community can get information about chemicals in their neighborhood. EPCRA Inventory Forms (Tier II forms) are due annually by March 1 for the preceding year. In the next year, the region expects to conduct more compliance assistance and issue info. request letters to more facilities.
- Facility reporting requirements under Section 312 of Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA): https://www.epa.gov/epcra
- Fact Sheet describing the GDC Compliance Assurance and Enforcement Initiative: https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/improving-safety-facilities-new-england-smaller-ammonia-refrigeration-systems
- This effort is part of an EPA National Compliance Initiative to reduce risk to human health and the environment by preventing chemical accidents. To read more about this initiative: https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/national-compliance-initiative-reducing-accidental-releases-industrial-and-chemical.
- EPA information on the General Duty Clause requirements of Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act: https://www.epa.gov/rmp/general-duty-clause-under-clean-air-act-section-112r1
- EPA information on key safety measures for ammonia refrigeration systems: https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/safety-standards-ammonia-refrigeration
- EPA Region 1 Ammonia Refrigeration webinar Refrigerate Right: Chemical Accident Prevention Requirements for Ammonia Refrigeration Systems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k34NTg42qIk