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South SF Meat Company Pays Fine For Ammonia Leak

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – South San Francisco meat processing company Columbus Manufacturing Inc. has agreed to pay out nearly $700,000 and spend $6 million to upgrade a refrigeration system that leaked ammonia twice in 2009.

According to the settlement agreement, the company released 217 pounds of anhydrous ammonia into the atmosphere on February 17, 2009 and a second cloud of more than 200 pounds later that year on August 28.

KCBS' Bob Melrose Reports:

That second cloud proved to be worse than the first as 17 people from Genentech Inc., whose headquarters is across the street, had to be hospitalized. Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Mary Simms said off-ramps from nearby Highway 101 and several local streets were temporarily shut down due to the ammonia leak.

The agreement settles a U.S. Clean Air Act lawsuit against Columbus by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA.

Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said the move is an important one as there are three child care centers nearby.

"The main message that we want to send is to the owners of these facilities and to the contractors that are managing that we are watching and that we do care that there is a large public risk to them not managing these facilities properly," Blumenfeld said. "We will continue to do inspections. There isn't a need for new rules or new safeguards on the books. The existing ones will work."

The EPA said that anhydrous ammonia is classified as an extremely hazardous substance, which can cause temporary blindness, eye damage and irritation of the respiratory tract. Prolonged exposure can also lead to lung damage.

In 2011, the company paid a separate $850,000 fine to San Mateo County in connection with the incident.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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