A South San Francisco meat processing plant will pay nearly $700,000 in penalties and spend $6 million to upgrade its refrigeration system in a settlement with the federal government for a 2009 ammonia leak that sickened 17 Genentech employees.
The agreement settles a U.S. Clean Air Act lawsuit filed in federal court in Oakland against Columbus Manufacturing Inc. by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The meat processing company, which is a subsidiary of Columbus Foods LLC of Hayward, released 217 pounds of anhydrous ammonia into the atmosphere on Feb. 17, 2009, and a second cloud of more than 200 pounds of the gas later that year, on Aug. 28, according to the settlement agreement.
The second cloud moved downwind to the nearby Genentech Inc. campus and caused 17 people to be hospitalized, EPA spokeswoman Mary Simms said. One person was in the hospital for four days. Off-ramps from U.S. Highway 101 and several local streets were temporarily shut down, she said.
EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said, "Columbus is responsible for letting plumes of poisonous gas escape into the open air.
"One thing that was very troubling for us was the response. They put water on top of the ammonia, which increases the speed of vaporization," Blumenfeld said.
The EPA said anhydrous ammonia is classified an extremely hazardous substance. It can cause temporary blindness, eye damage and irritation of the respiratory tract, and prolonged exposure can lead to lung damage, the agency said.
Columbus Foods, founded on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco in 1917, specializes in Italian salami and deli meats.
Company CEO Tim Fallon said the August 2009 ammonia release was an "unfortunate accident" that occurred when the company hired a contractor to
correct the problem that caused the earlier release.
Fallon said, "Columbus Food is a 95-year-old company with a long history of doing the right thing."
He said the company has had a plant in San Mateo County for more than 50 years and has had no other similar incidents in that time.
The planned settlement is subject to a 30-day public comment period, after which the Justice Department can ask the judge assigned to the case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu of Oakland, to approve it.
In 2011, the company in connection with the incident.
The federal settlement is "the last piece of the regulatory process," Fallon said.
-Bay City News
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