Tyson Foods will pay a $3.95 million civil penalty following allegations by the federal government of releases of a dangerous chemical that resulted in one fatality and dozens of injuries at multiple sites in the Midwest over a period of four years.
The settlement was announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 7, which is based in Kansas City.
As part of a consent decree filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Tyson also will conduct pipe testing and third-party audits of its ammonia refrigeration systems at all 23 of its plants in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska to improve compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.
That includes Tyson plants in Monett and Noel.
According to the EPA and the Department of Justice, the settlement stems from eight separate accidents between 2006 and 2010 in which anhydrous ammonia used at Tyson plants was accidentally released.
On Oct. 31, 2006, anhydrous ammonia was released at a Tyson plant in South Hutchinson, Kan. One worker was killed and another was injured.
On Nov. 8, 2006, there was a release from a plant in Sedalia, with at least three injuries.
On Dec. 9, 2006, there was a release from the company’s Hutchinson plant resulting in at least 10 injuries and a plant evacuation.
On Dec. 26, 2006, there was a release from a Tyson plant in Omaha, Neb., in which there were five injuries and 475 workers were evacuated.
On Oct. 4, 2007, and again on Nov. 5, 2009, there were releases from a plant in Perry, Iowa. The same employee was exposed both times, and the latter incident resulted in severe chemical burns and frostbite to 25 percent of the victim’s body and 45 days of hospitalization.
On Oct. 30, 2007, there was a release from a plant in Sioux City, Iowa, in which one person was injured.
On April 17, 2009, an employee was injured following a release at a Tyson plant in Emporia, Kan.
On June 18, 2010, a release from the plant in Cherokee, Iowa, caused one injury to a worker.
Inspections at other Tyson plants in those four states found other violations, covering areas such as reporting requirements and failure to correct defective equipment. Those violations included failure to follow general industry standards to test or replace safety relief valves and gas-fired boilers improperly located next to ammonia machinery, as well as failures to abide by the Clean Air Act’s risk management program prevention and reporting requirements.
At its Monett plant, Tyson was accused by the federal government of failing to review and annually certify that operating procedures were current and accurate according to Clean Air Act regulations. In Noel, the company was cited for failing to provide initial training for each employee involved in its risk management plan.
Tyson officials said in a statement that while they dispute many of the EPA’s assertions, they “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,” Kevin Igli, senior vice president and chief environmental, health and safety officer of Tyson Foods, said in a statement.
Igli said he hoped the new auditing requirement would “become a model provision that EPA may require from other industrial users of anhydrous ammonia or other chemicals, including other agricultural and food companies.”
While the lawsuit and settlement were specific to those four states that are part of EPA Region 7, an attempt to find out whether Tyson plants in other parts of the country were investigated was unsuccessful Friday.
“I can’t speak for the other regions,” said Ben Washburn, Region 7 spokesperson.
He referred calls to EPA officials in Washington, D.C., but Stacy Kika, EPA spokesperson, would not comment on whether the agency had investigated other Tyson plants, saying only: “EPA does not discuss potential or ongoing enforcement matters.”
Gary Mickelson, spokesperson for Tyson, indicated they were not aware of any investigations, but also referred that question to the EPA.
According to the EPA, anhydrous ammonia is considered a poisonous gas that is commonly used in industrial refrigeration systems. Exposure to its vapors can cause temporary blindness, eye damage and irritation of the skin, mouth, throat, respiratory tract and mucous membranes. Prolonged exposure to the vapor at high concentrations can lead to serious lung damage and even death.
Tyson’s 23 plants listed in the consent decree are subject to the Clean Air Act’s risk management program requirements because their refrigeration systems each contain more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. The plants have a combined inventory of more than 1.7 million pounds of the chemical.
Tyson also will spend at least $300,000 to purchase anhydrous ammonia-related emergency response equipment for fire departments in eight communities where some of its operations are located.
That includes $26,855 in Monett and $35,829 in Noel.
Mickelson said Monett and Noel were chosen because they were identified as communities with the “greatest equipment needs.”
“Exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause serious health issues, and in extreme cases, even death,” Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s office of enforcement and compliance assurance, said in a statement. “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.”
Tyson, with headquarters in Springdale, Ark., is the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork.