In August 2009, the plant accidentally released approximately 200 pounds of anhydrous ammonia into the air. The release resulted in the evacuation of all facility employees and several neighboring businesses. Nearly 30 people from the nearby Genentech campus sought medical attention and 17 individuals were hospitalized. One person remained hospitalized for 4 days. In addition, off-ramps from Highway 101 and several local streets were shut down as a result of the incident.
“This release of an extremely hazardous chemical is unacceptable. It’s critical that Columbus Mfg. take specific actions to safeguard its employees and neighbors,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for EPA’s Pacific Southwest region. “EPA will vigorously enforce federal rules to protect public health. As a result of these dangerous accidental releases, the company may also face substantial federal fines.”
Anhydrous ammonia is considered a poisonous gas. 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 even death.
The facility’s accidental release in August allegedly was caused by a buildup of hydrostatic pressure in a section of piping which caused the subsequent rupture of a nearby component. Following the incident, EPA and San Mateo County’s Division of Environmental Health Services inspected the facility and evaluated Columbus’s ammonia refrigeration systems and safety management systems. The inspections revealed a number of safety concerns regarding the design and maintenance of the facility’s anhydrous ammonia refrigeration system.
EPA’s order requires Columbus to complete a series of tasks within the next 3 months. The tasks include the replacement of certain safety relief valves, the replacement of all components with any signs of corrosion or made from incompatible materials such as brass, and the proper tagging and labeling of all of its ammonia refrigeration system piping and valves. Within 105 days of this order, the facility will need to submit verification to the EPA indicating compliance with all required actions.
For more information, visit http://www.epa.gov/region09/superfund/emerprep.