Noting that illegal chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant imports appear to be on the rise, the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, Arlington, Va., reminded industry to be sure their CFC purchases are legal. The rise comes as these ozone-depleting refrigerants become scarcer due to their phaseout under U.S. law and international treaty.

If illegal refrigerant is discovered, the government can confiscate it, even if it has been passed down through the marketplace, and prosecute purchasers who knowingly bought it, said Dave Stirpe, the Alliance's executive director. Some of the illegal imports are of poor quality, he said.

According to the Alliance, the first conviction ever for violation of the Clean Air Act was for illegal importation of CFCs. Penalties have included prison terms from two months to almost five years and fines have totaled more than $60 million. In the past four years, approximately 70 people have been convicted of smuggling or diverting CFCs into the United States or for evading federal excise taxes on the refrigerant.

Of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 tons of CFCs illegally imported into the United States each year, a total of nearly 2 million pounds have been impounded by U.S. Customs.

The price of CFC-12 has increased as supplies have diminished since 1996, when developed countries stopped producing and importing it. Stockpiled and recycled CFCs can continue to be used to maintain existing refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment.

"Illegal imports make ozone-depleting CFCs more available, reduce the incentive for users to use alternatives, and penalize legitimate companies that are complying with U.S. laws," Stirpe said.

The civil penalty for violating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regulations can be up to $25,000 per kg (2.2 lb) of wrongfully imported CFCs. Criminal penalties range from up to five years for a first offense and up to 10 years for repeat offenses.