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Chemical Accident Prevention Requirements are Met and Settlement Agreed to in Swanton, Vt.

Release Date: 03/16/2016
Contact Information: Emily Bender (617) 918-1037

Yesterday, a Swanton, Vt. cheese manufacturer and the owner of the property agreed to pay $100,000 to settle penalty claims by the US Environmental Protection Agency that it violated clean air, Superfund and right-to-know laws between 2011 and 2015.

After two EPA inspections and an August 2015 EPA Order, the company is now protecting worker and community safety by complying with chemical accident prevention measures outlined in the Clean Air Act. Swan Valley Cheese of Vermont cooperated with EPA, and removed the anhydrous ammonia from its aged refrigeration system and purchased a new refrigeration system that does not use ammonia. Although anhydrous ammonia is an efficient refrigerant with many benefits, it is also an extremely hazardous substance that is corrosive to skin, eyes, and lungs.

Swan Valley Cheese has operated the cheese-making facility in Swanton since 2011. The property, which is near the Canadian border, sits 1,000 feet from the Missisquoi River and near residences. Before 2011, another cheese-maker operated there, and some of the facility’s refrigeration equipment dated back to the 1950s.

The case stems from a February 2015 release of about 1,650 pounds of ammonia during maintenance operations when three of the plant’s 14 employees were sprayed with an oil/ammonia mixture. The Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team responded to the release after being called by the local fire department. EPA learned of the release and conducted two inspections in March and April of 2015.

During the inspections, EPA found numerous dangerous conditions associated with the ammonia refrigeration system. EPA issued a notice of the potential violations in May and followed up the letter with a Clean Air Act compliance order. Swan Valley Cheese removed the ammonia from the system in September, shutting down the facility until the new system was up and running.

According to the Clean Air Act’s “General Duty Clause,” owners and operators of plants producing, processing, handling, or storing extremely hazardous substances - including anhydrous ammonia - must identify hazards that may result from releases, must design and maintain a safe facility, taking steps to prevent releases, and must minimize the consequences of accidental releases that do occur.

According to EPA, the companies violated all aspects of the General Duty Clause. Some of the problems included lack of ventilation to prevent a fire or explosion from a buildup of ammonia vapors; widespread corrosion; broken vapor barriers on piping; a lack of ammonia detectors or alarms as well as of emergency shut-off switches; lack of a proper maintenance program for refrigeration equipment; and poor design of the oil drain system.

Swan also failed to provide chemical inventory forms to emergency responders, in violation of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA), a federal law intended to make sure that responders and the community are aware of potential threats around them. It also failed to report the February release of ammonia to the National Response Center, as required by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

In reaching agreement on the penalty, EPA considered the companies’ financial situation in an expedited fashion, which allowed Swan Valley Cheese of Vermont to obtain the financing necessary to purchase a safer refrigeration system and continue its business in Vermont.
For more information about the Clean Air Act’s General Duty Clause and chemical accident prevention requirements, go to:
http://www.epa.gov/enforcement/guidance-implementation-general-duty-clause-clean-air-act-caa-section-112r1-may-2000 and http://www.epa.gov/rmp
For help preventing ammonia releases from refrigeration systems, go to
http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/accident_prevention_ammonia_refrigeration_5-20-15.pdf
For an EPA enforcement alert regarding ammonia refrigeration systems, go to
http://go.usa.gov/3CWQw

For information on EPCRA reporting requirements, go to http://www.epa.gov/epcra

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