MFA Inc. facilities at Centralia, Martinsburg and Jefferson City are included in a federal complaint of non-compliance in the handling of a potentially hazardous fertilizer. The farm supplier and the Environmental Protection Agency have agreed to a consent decree to avoid litigation.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency in a complaint filed July 2 allege violations at nine MFA facilities in the state that store anhydrous ammonia. The chemical is used as fertilizer, but exposure can cause a number of health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

MFA, as part of the agreement, will pay a $850,000 civil penalty. Jeffrey Wood, acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a press release the settlement will protect communities by preventing future releases of harmful chemicals.

“By bringing MFA facilities into compliance with the Clean Air Act, this agreement will also substantially improve the maintenance and emergency systems that keep MFA workers safe,” Wood said.

The Centralia facility was cited in the complaint for a number of deficiencies, including an accidental release in September 2009 that resulted in one person being injured. MFA, according to the complaint, also failed to report that injury in a risk-management plan.

The complaint stated the Centralia facility did not have accurate safety information, proper support saddles for tanks, steps to detect and monitor releases of the chemical, standard procedures for temporary operations or standard procedures for daily startup and shutdown processes.

The facility also failed to test and replace underground piping and write an accurate description of its emergency response program. It also did not evaluate hazards that could arise from a possible train accident on a nearby track.

The Martinsburg facility failed to change pressure relief valves after five years as required by law. It also failed to recognize the hazard of underground pipes and list standard procedures for daily startup and shutdown processes, according to the complaint.

The Jefferson City facility failed to maintain equipment specifications to determine safe flow limits, failed to keep storage tanks in compliance with best engineering practices and failed to conduct an audit every three years as required.

Similar violations were found at the other six Missouri facilities mentioned in the complaint — Rockport, Pattonsburg, Hale, St. Joseph, Rich Hill and New Cambria. The DOJ said MFA pleaded guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act in 2007 over a release that caused a worker to be injured, but apparently ignored an agreement to come into compliance.

MFA, in agreeing to the consent decree, which will still have to be approved by a federal judge, does not admit fault. President and CEO Ernie Verslues said the company did not agree with the EPA’s findings but will strive for best practices regardless.

“Stewardship is a core value at MFA. It is a part of who we are. We disagreed with EPA’s evaluation of our operations and did not believe we deserved the extent of attention and scrutiny we have received,” Verslues said. “Still, we are implementing the Supplemental Environmental Project as a way to live up to this core value and to continue to safely and responsibly offer anhydrous ammonia products and services to our member-owners.”

The Supplemental Environmental Project implements new emergency shutoff equipment at its anhydrous ammonia facilities, MFA said. The equipment developed by MFA uses remote technology to shut off valves in case of a release, supposedly limiting potential harm.

MFA will also be required to implement policies and specifications for storage and handling anhydrous ammonia and a corporate-wide inventory maintenance system. It must also inspect and remedy any problems with equipment, update the information it provides to EPA on releases and maintain a website listing accidents.

According to the CDC, as liquid anhydrous ammonia is released from its container into the air, it expands rapidly, forming a large cloud that acts like a heavier-than-air gas for a period of time. Because the vapors hug the ground initially, the chances for humans to be exposed are greater than with other gases.

Exposure can cause respiratory problems, burns and can be fatal at high concentrations.

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