EPA Issues Enforcement Alert on Anhydrous Ammonia

In February 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an enforcement alert entitled: “Anhydrous Ammonia at Refrigeration Facilities Under Scrutiny by U.S. EPA.” The EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement issues alerts such as this periodically to highlight areas where the agency is placing enforcement priority.

According to EPA, “evidence gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that some refrigeration facilities may be failing to properly manage hazardous chemicals, including anhydrous ammonia, as required by the Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 112(r).” The alert is intended to inform the industry that companies must take responsibility to prevent accidental releases of dangerous chemicals like anhydrous ammonia through compliance with CAA’s Chemical Accident Prevention Program. EPA cites a number of recent releases and enforcement cases as a reason for issuing the alert.

For facilities with over 10,000 pounds of ammonia, the primary regulation EPA uses is the Risk Management Program. The alert reminds facilities subject to RMP that they must:

  • Analyze the worst-case release scenario to determine the potential effects of a release of an extremely hazardous substance.
  • Complete a five-year accident history.
  • Coordinate response actions with the local emergency response agencies.
  • Submit to EPA a written Risk Management Plan, which is a summary of the Program, updating the plan every five years or as changes occur.

Facilities that have processes from which worst-case releases could reach the public, or where accidental releases within the past five years have resulted in certain offsite impacts have additional requirements. For example, owners and operators of Program 3 processes must:

  • Conduct an analysis to identify and resolve hazards associated with the process, which must be updated every five years.

Have a release prevention program, with requirements to:

  • compile process safety information about the chemicals, equipment, and applicable industry standards, and ensure compliance with such industry standards,
  • use safe operating procedures,
  • train employees,
  • maintain equipment,
  • conduct compliance audits every three years,
  • investigate accidents,
  • manage changes that could affect a process,
  • perform pre-startup review,
  • have an employee participation plan,
  • prevent accidents from hot work, and
  • have a program to manage contractors who are working on or around a process.

The alert also discusses the role that the EPA’s General Duty Clause plays in regulating refrigeration facilities with less than 10,000 pounds of ammonia. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 includes Section 112(r)(1), which defines EPA’s General Duty Clause:

“…The owners and operators of stationary sources producing, processing, handling or storing such substances [i.e., a chemical in 40 CFR part 68 or any other extremely hazardous substance] have a general duty [in the same manner and to the same extent as the general duty clause in the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)] to identify hazards which may result from (such) releases using appropriate hazard assessment techniques, to design and maintain a safe facility taking such steps as are necessary to prevent releases, and to minimize the consequences of accidental releases which do occur.”

While facilities with less than 10,000 pounds of ammonia do not need to file a formal Risk Management Plan, EPA, through its General Duty Clause, expects facilities to:

  • Determine if, and under what circumstances, a release could occur.
  • Put in place procedures and controls to prevent a release.
  • Implement a plan of action should a release occur.

EPA’s General Duty Clause is very broad in its application and there are few details provided on how to comply. EPA has published some guidance on how inspectors are to apply the General Duty Clause in the document entitled “Guidance for Implementation of the General Duty Clause Clean Air Act Section 112(r)(1). This document outlines three steps that can help demonstrate compliance:

  • Adopt or follow any relevant industry codes, practices, or consensus standards.
  • Be aware of unique circumstances of your facility which may require a tailored accident prevention program.
  • Be aware of accidents and other incidents in your industry that indicate potential hazards.

Industry members have reported that EPA is increasing the use of its General Duty Clause authority to bring citations in ammonia refrigeration facilities. EPA inspectors tend to lean on their experience with RMP when using the General Duty Clause, so facilities under 10,000 pounds will benefit from proactively determining how they are addressing recognized hazards. There have been reports of EPA inspectors citing facilities under the General Duty Clause and pulling from RMP standards to make their case for meeting the General Duty Clause. This is particularly true for companies with multiple facilities, some of which are regulated under RMP. Inspectors will assert that the company should be readily aware of hazards because some of their facilities are subject to RMP.

In cases of both RMP and the General Duty Clause, the EPA alert recognizes the role of industry standards such as those developed by IIAR to help facilities comply with regulations. In addition to IIAR standards, IIAR also publishes Process Safety Management and Risk Management Program Guidelines and the Ammonia Refrigeration Management (ARM) manual to assist members with compliance. The ARM manual is specifically designed for facilities with less than 10,000 pounds of ammonia, while the PSM & RMP Guidelines provides compliance resources for facilities with more than 10,000 pounds.

Finally, the EPA enforcement alert discusses lessons learned from recent inspections of ammonia refrigeration systems. The list below highlights areas where EPA is placing enforcement emphasis in the ammonia refrigeration industry:

  • Identifying the hazards that a facility’s refrigeration systems present is crucial. Part of this analysis should include understanding the gap between the safety requirements of new industry codes and standards and the standards to which the facility was built and developing a plan to address safety deficiencies. In some cases, that plan must include making facility upgrades.
  • Preventive maintenance is the standard for the industry. The maintenance program, including inspections, should be documented.
  • Gathering sufficient information about the piping and equipment is crucial so that facilities understand the hazards associated with their refrigeration system and can develop a proper maintenance program.
  • Refrigeration systems that are missing key controls, such as emergency shutoff valves, because they were not built to industry codes and standards in effect at the time of construction need to be upgraded.
  • Halting corrosion of pipes and equipment should be a priority. • Hammering and shaking of equipment and pipes risks breakage and ammonia releases.
  • Defrosting is important. Ice buildup can impede access to important equipment and dangerously weigh down piping.
  • Adequate ventilation in a safe location is required for machinery rooms.
  • Ability to shut down the system without entering the machinery room is necessary.
  • Ammonia pressure relief devices should not be located where they could spray ammonia onto people.
  • A trained operator is critical to running an ammonia refrigeration system.
  • A well-maintained closed loop system should limit accidents occurring during startup.

This list provides important insight into the types of issues EPA inspectors will be examining when inspecting ammonia refrigeration facilities. IIAR members are encouraged to review the list and ensure their RMP programs and ARM programs (in facilities with less than 10,000 pounds) are being actively implemented to address these hazards. IIAR has been in contact with EPA regarding the enforcement alert and will be meeting with key officials to further discuss the alert and its implications on the industry.