A Massachusetts refrigeration company has pleaded guilty (pdf) to a federal charge that a company technician contaminated a New Hampshire wastewater facility by pouring gallons of ammonia down a drain while servicing an industrial refrigeration system in 2008, the Concord Monitor reports.
American Refrigeration Co. Inc., headquartered in Andover, Mass., faces a fine of up to $500,000 and five years probation. Sentencing is scheduled for April 18.
According to assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Morse, the technician was performing a service job requiring removal of all ammonia from the refrigeration system’s 1,683-gallon holding tank. After transferring most of the ammonia to other parts of the system, the technician drained the rest into a floor drain, which he knew led to a public treatment plant.
The amount of ammonia poured down the drain remains in dispute. Prosecutors estimate as much as 212 gallons, while the company contends it was as little as 15 gallons, Morse told the Concord Monitor.
Federal prosecutors say the ammonia killed organic materials used to help treat wastewater at the Suncook Wastewater Treatment Facility. As a result, the wastewater facility dumped untreated or significantly under-treated wastewater into the Merrimack River, leading to “undesirable levels of suspended solids,” authorities said. The pH level of the discharge violated a condition of the plant’s federal discharge permit.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Suncook plant’s operations returned to normal four days after the incident.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services investigated the incident. Morse is heading the prosecution by the Department of Justice.
According to Morse, the decision was made to charge the company and not the technician because “he’s a low-level employee and we didn’t think it was appropriate to charge him.”
Morse told the Concord Monitor that prosecutors have recommended American Refrigeration be fined $40,000. He said the company’s corporate probation would likely include an environmental audit by regulators, the assignment of a probation officer and a requirement that the company publish an ad in an industry publication describing its prosecution and alerting others to the danger of improper disposal of ammonia.