Cabot Creamery admits guilt, accepts fine in ammonia spill in Winooski
MONTPELIER – The Cabot Creamery Cooperative announced a plea agreement Tuesday stemming from a release of anhydrous ammonia into the Winooski River in July 2005 that killed 15,000 fish in a 5 1/2 mile stretch downstream.
Cabot signed the agreement late Monday, acknowledging with a guilty plea that its employees allowed 3 gallons of anhydrous ammonia – not the household cleaner but a substance used as a refrigerant – to escape into a storm water drain while they were replacing a cooling system at the plant..
Tuesday, the U.S. attorney for Vermont and the Environmental Protection Agency filed papers charging Cabot with a single count of negligently discharging ammonia into the Winooski River in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
Simultaneously, the U.S. attorney's office in Burlington and Cabot filed a plea agreement in which Cabot agreed to plead guilty to the misdemeanor offense, pay a fine, be placed on probation and take steps to prevent such accidents from happening in the future.
The award-winning cheesemaker was founded as a cooperative in 1919 and merged with Agri-Mark Cooperative in 1992.
Assistant United States Attorney Barbara Masterson noted that if the discharge had been intentional, it would have been a felony. Under the plea agreement, Cabot will pay a fine of $50,000 and as part of a community service requirement will have to contribute $50,000 to fund a Supplemental Environment Project, or SEP.
Cabot could have been fined as much as $200,000, Masterson noted.
Roberta MacDonald, Cabot's senior vice president for marketing, said, "We are relieved to have the investigation and legal resolution behind us." She added, "We took the damage we caused seriously. From the heart of every employee there, they're committed to never letting anything like this happen again."
The ammonia was discharged when employees were replacing a 30-year-old cooling system. Any of the refrigerant spilled during the changeover should have been contained by the plant's "closed-loop" wastewater processing system. But during the early morning hours of July 17, 2005, a Sunday, an employee placed a 55-gallon water drum being used to absorb ammonia vapor from the cooling system on the edge of the road, outside the wastewater system's collection area. The U.S. attorney's office said that over the next several hours, the employee and his supervisor drained ammonia from the refrigeration system's condenser into the drum through a plastic tube while water was left running into the drum from a hose. The ammonia-laden water overflowed into a storm drain and from there, into the river.
The next day, when employees found that a pipe on the new unit needed to be replaced, they repeated the procedure used Sunday and the drum overflowed again. MacDonald characterized the accident as "a fluke" that resulted from "a very conscientious, long-term employee thinking he was doing everybody a favor" by moving the water drum to a spot where the smell wouldn't bother anyone.
Immediately after the incident, Cabot instituted new protocols for handling hazardous materials. Jim Pratt, Cabot's senior vice president for operations, said all the refrigeration equipment has been totally enclosed, so if there were any accidental spillage in the future, it would be contained within the plant's water reclamation system.
In addition, a select group of maintenance technicians has received a minimum of 24 hours of training on how to maintain ammonia refrigeration systems, and each has passed a test on it. No other employees are authorized to work on the system, Pratt said. The lead technician has received more than 100 hours of training, he added, and the whole group will receive refresher trainings every year.
The U.S. attorney's office noted that Cabot had discharged ammonia into the Winooski River in 1983, killing fish and damaging several miles of river. As the result of a civil settlement with the state, the creamery agreed to develop policies on how to handle hazardous materials and prevent future releases, but no policies were in place when the spills took place in 2005.
Cabot officials replied that although some employees who work at the plant now were there in 1983, none of the current managers were at the plant at the time of the earlier spill and no documents concerning the incident can be found.
The EPA began the investigation that resulted in the Tuesday's legal action in August 2005. Anthony Iarrpino, a staff lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, observed that "strong enforcement, such as EPA has undertaken here, protects Vermont's waters and public health by sending a message that environmental violations have serious law enforcement consequences. I think that's a message that may have been lost on Vermont polluters."
Rick Kirn, the fisheries biologist who investigated the spill that affected an area stretching from the creamery to just south of the village of Marshfield, called it "a significant event.
"We lost an entire aquatic community for 5 1/2 miles of river – all species, all age classes were lost," he said, adding recovery will take time.
Before the spill, the upper section of the Winooski in the Cabot area held nongame fish and wild brook trout. In the two years since the fish were wiped out, similar species living upstream and in tributaries have repopulated the reach, although the numbers of fish are much lower.MORE IN Central Vermont
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