Salami giant fined for gas discharge

South San Francisco salami-producing giant Columbus Manufacturing Inc. has agreed to pay a $700,000 fine and spend $6 million upgrading their systems after two incidents in 2009 hospitalized 17 employees from Genentech’s headquarters across the street.

The incidents released more than 400 pounds of anhydrous ammonia into the atmosphere, temporarily shutting down Highway 101 off-ramps and local streets. Several child care centers nearby were luckily not affected.

The $6 million is to upgrade Columbus’ ammonia-emitting refrigeration system, settling a Clean Air Act lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA.

“The main message that we want to send to the owners of these facilities and to the contractors that are managing that we are watching,” Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld told KCBS. “We do care that there is a large public risk to them not managing these facilities properly.”

Anhydrous ammonia is an extremely hazardous substance, especially in high concentration and with prolonged exposure. A clear, colorless gas with a distinctly pungent odor, it can cause temporary blindness, eye damage, irritation of the respiratory tract, and even irreparable lung damage.

Anhydrous ammonia is widely used in industrial refrigeration applications and hockey rinks because of its high energy efficiency and low cost. It is not generally used in grocery store freezer cases and refrigerated displays due to its high levels of toxicity.

Columbus Manufacturing, which got its start in San Francisco 85 years ago, already paid an $850,000 fine to San Mateo County for the incident last year.