Emergency Preparedness and Response

Company to Pay $225K for RMP General Duty Clause Violations

According to a recent EPA complaint, the company failed to put in place a required Risk Management Plan (RMP) for ammonia used in the refrigeration system at its Rhode Island facility, in violation of the federal CAA.  EPA also alleged that the company violated CAA’s General Duty Clause, which applies to facilities where extremely hazardous substances such as ammonia are present, at its Massachusetts location. 

Under the General Duty Clause, owners and operators of these facilities are required to identify hazards, design and maintain the facility in a safe manner, taking steps to prevent accidental releases of the extremely hazardous substance, and take steps to minimize the consequences of any accidental releases that occur. EPA says the company had not taken required steps to design and maintain a safe facility or taken precautions that would minimize the consequences of an accidental release of ammonia, if one were to occur, at its Massachusetts facility. 

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For example, according to EPA, they failed to:

  • Provide mechanical ventilation;
  • Provide working ammonia detectors and an emergency shutdown switch for the machinery room;
  • Develop operating procedures and a comprehensive mechanical integrity program; and,
  • Train employees in the proper operation of the system at the Massachusetts facility.

Ammonia presents a significant health hazard because it is corrosive to the skin, eyes, and lungs. Exposure to 300 parts per million (ppm) is immediately dangerous to life and health. Ammonia is also flammable at concentrations of about 15 percent to 28 percent by volume in air.  It can explode if it is released in an enclosed space with a source of ignition present, or if a vessel containing anhydrous ammonia is exposed to fire.

RMPs required under the CAA and steps required under the General Duty Clause, help prevent accidental releases of substances that can cause serious harm to the public and the environment from short-term exposures and reduces the severity of releases that do occur.  A company that fails to take these steps can leave the public and environment at risk from accidental releases.

According to EPA, both facilities are located less than a fifth of a mile from residential homes, and less than a quarter of a mile from retail and office areas.

EPA learned about the company’s facilities following an inspection of the Massachusetts facility in November 2011. After EPA’s inspection, the company developed and submitted an RMP for its Rhode Island facility, and the company is currently working to fix problems identified at the Massachusetts facility.  For example, the company has installed an ammonia detector and investigated and corrected pipe corrosion and vibration problems noted by EPA inspectors.  The company also plans to install a ventilation fan and an emergency shutdown switch and to prepare and implement an improved maintenance program for the system.

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General Duty Clause and Risk Management

Even if a facility does not have a listed substance above the threshold limit or has reconfigured or taken an enforceable limit to avoid having to submit an RMP, a facility may still have responsibilities. 42 USC 7412(r)(1) requires the owner or operator of a stationary source that produces, processes, handles, or stores any listed substance or other extremely hazardous substance to identify hazards that may result from the release of these chemicals.

While the statute states that no liability or basis for suit resulting from a release is created by the section, the General Duty Clause clearly implies the need for a source to carefully look at its processes and take steps to reduce the amount and effects of an accidental release.

See tomorrow’s Advisor for more on the General Duty Clause for risk management.

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