A Swanton, Vt.-based cheese manufacturer removed its anhydrous ammonia refrigeration system and agreed to pay $100,000 to settle penalty claims by the EPA that it violated clean air, Superfund and right-to-know laws between 2011 and 2015.
After two inspections by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an August 2015 EPA order, the company is now complying with chemical accident prevention measures outlined in the Clean Air Act. Swan Valley Cheese of Vermont cooperated with EPA and removed anhydrous ammonia from its aged refrigeration system. The company purchased a new refrigeration system that does not use ammonia. A
Swan Valley Cheese has operated the cheese-making facility since 2011. The property, which is near the Canadian border, sits 1,000' 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 lb 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). 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).