Tyson Foods resolves plant refrigeration concerns with EPA

Apr 12, 2013

Tyson Foods, Inc. has worked cooperatively with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to resolve concerns over the maintenance of refrigeration systems at food production plants in four states, the company reported.

As part of a consent decree filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, MO, the company has agreed to pay a $3.95 million civil penalty to settle alleged violations of Clean Air Act regulations covering the prevention of chemical accidents at its facilities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, according to EPA.

According to EPA, the settlement stems from a series of eight separate incidents between 2006 and 2010 in which accidental releases of anhydrous ammonia at Tyson facilities resulted in property damage, multiple injuries, and one fatality.

“Dating back to October 2006, those violations included failures to follow the general industry standards to test or replace safety relief valves, improperly colocated gas-fired boilers and ammonia machinery, as well as failures to abide by the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Program prevention and reporting requirements,” EPA shared in a press release.

The agreement and fine resolves the EPA concerns and creates a special program for meeting Risk Management Plan (RMP) requirements of the federal Clean Air Act at 23 Tyson Foods facilities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

The new program will build upon Tyson Foods’ existing Risk Management Plans for the company’s refrigeration systems, which use anhydrous ammonia as a refrigerant. The plans are designed to prevent chemical emergencies by requiring a systematic process for managing chemical hazards, including training, worker communication, maintenance and other activities.

EPA claimed the company had not complied quickly enough with several RMP requirements at some facilities located within EPA Region 7 across the Midwest. Company officials disputed many of the EPA’s assertions, but acknowledge there was a period when some refrigeration improvement projects fell behind schedule and Tyson did not meet all the obligations required under the program at several locations.

“We strive to operate our facilities responsibly, so after learning of EPA’s concerns we immediately made improvements and cooperated with EPA officials throughout the process,” said Kevin Igli, senior vice president and chief Environmental, Health and Safety Officer of Tyson Foods.

“We also agreed to develop a third-party audit system at the facilities involved to assure EPA these plants are in compliance with all aspects of our Risk Management Plan obligations,” Igli said.

In addition to the $3.95 million penalty, pipe-testing and third-party audits, Tyson will also spend at least $300,000 as part of a Supplemental Environmental Project that will purchase anhydrous ammonia related emergency response equipment for fire departments in eight environmental justice communities where the company’s operations are located: Council Bluffs, IA, $78,990; Perry, IA, $72,156; Dexter, MO, $25,795; Monett, MO, $26,855; Noel, MO, $35,829; Dakota City, NE, $16,630; Lexington, NE, $25,858; and Omaha, NE, $17,934.

The other plant locations covered in the agreement include: Cherokee, IA; Columbus Junction, IA; Denison, IA; Sioux City, IA; Emporia, KS; South Hutchinson, KS; Hutchinson, KS; Sedalia, MO; Madison, NE; Concordia, MO; Finney County, KS; Montgomery City, MO; Olathe, KS; Storm Lake, IA; and Waterloo, IA (two facilities).

In 2005, with a goal of preventing accidents and helping regulated entities understand their obligations in accordance with environmental laws, EPA Region 7 published an Accident Prevention and Response Manual for Anhydrous Ammonia Refrigeration System Operators.

That guide, now in its third edition, is available online.

Anhydrous ammonia is considered a poisonous gas but is commonly used in industrial refrigeration systems. Exposure to its vapors can cause temporary blindness and eye damage and irritation of the skin, mouth, throat, respiratory tract and mucous membranes. Prolonged exposure to anhydrous ammonia vapor at high concentrations can lead to serious lung damage and death.

“EPA Region 7 regularly analyzes the accident history of industrial facilities in our four states that are covered by the Risk Management Program regulations,” Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said.

“These studies have shown that ammonia refrigeration facilities have a higher accident rate than other processes. As a result, we focus a significant portion of our inspection resources on these high risk facilities. The vast majority of these accidents are preventable.”

“Exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause serious health issues, and in extreme cases, even death,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s settlement with Tyson Foods will ensure the proper safety practices are in place in the future to protect employees, first responders and communities located near processing facilities from the threat of dangerous chemical releases.”

The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court. Once it is published in the Federal Register, a copy of the consent decree will be available on the Justice Department web site at usdoj.gov/enrd/ Consent_Decrees.html. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor