New Hampshire Wholesale Grocer Fined for Chemical Release

C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc., a large food-distribution business headquartered in Keene, N.H., has agreed to pay a penalty of $126,700 to settle claims that it violated the Clean Air Act.

The case stems from an investigation that the Environmental Protection Agency launched following the release of anhydrous ammonia from a C&S cold storage warehouse in Hatfield, Mass., in 2007. Although no one was seriously hurt, the release prompted the evacuation of nearby homes and sent 13 employees to the hospital for decontamination and treatment of respiratory ailments. C&S has also agreed to provide a hazardous materials trailer and associated equipment worth $10,405 to the Hatfield Fire Department to help emergency responders in the area address hazardous substance releases.

The complaint filed today in U.S. District Court in the District of Massachusetts alleges that on the day of the release, three of the four refrigeration condensers were out of service and an electric panel on the fan for the fourth condenser was closed and overheated. It is alleged that a series of events caused pressure in the ammonia refrigeration system to rise resulting in the release. The refrigeration system at the Hatfield warehouse contains 58,000 pounds of ammonia and is required to follow federal risk management planning under the Clean Air Act. According to the complaint, C&S had an inadequate risk management plan which lacked clear procedures to aid emergency responders when they arrived at the scene, leading to a delay in shutting down the system.

While not admitting any liability, C&S has agreed to hire a “refrigeration expert” to audit the facility’s ammonia refrigeration system and determine whether it complies with all applicable generally accepted good engineering practices. The consultant will then recommend any necessary changes to the design, maintenance, inspections, testing and operation of the system. As referenced in the consent decree also filed today in U.S. District Court, C&S will give the results of the audit and assessment to EPA within six months, and C&S will make changes within a year.