Visalia citrus plant faces EPA penalties

Ventura Coastal agrees to pay Environmental Protection Agency a $270,000 settlement for violations found at Visalia facility, does not admit to any wrongdoing in settlement

SAN FRANCISCO – Ventura Coastal, LLC of Visalia agrees to pay almost $300,000 in penalty fees from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations against the Clean Air Act discovered at the facility.

On Aug. 31, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a settlement with Ventura Coastal, LLC for a penalty of $270,000 to resolve Clean Air Act chemical risk management violations from 2019. The citrus processing facility, located in Visalia, California, produces a wide range of citrus fruit products, including citrus juices, concentrates and even essence oils. According to the EPA, the facility improperly managed refrigeration equipment, which contained more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous substance often used for large-scale refrigeration systems.

EPA’s pacific southwest regional administrator Martha Guzman said it is critical that facilities like Ventura Coastal prevent dangerous incidents from occurring by handling extremely hazardous substances in the proper manner. She also said if the processing plant violates the law, they will face Clean Air Act penalties.

“This settlement will protect the nearby Visalia community from future chemical accidents and minimize the danger if incidents do occur again,” Guzman said.

According to an EPA news release from May 2019, EPA inspected the Visalia facility and determined that Ventura Coastal violated Clean Air Act provisions of Section 112(r), which rules anhydrous ammonia as an extremely hazardous substance. From their inspections, EPA discovered the company failed to keep up-to-date information on equipment; failed to label piping and equipment; did not adequately describe maintenance and inspection frequencies for equipment and instrumentation; failed to inspect equipment and correct deficiencies; and did not address internal audit and incident investigation findings in a timely manner.

EPA inspected Ventura Coastal’s Visalia facility as part of the Agency’s National Compliance Initiative. This initiative seeks to reduce any risks to human health and the environment by decreasing the likelihood of accidental releases and mitigating the consequences of chemical accidents.

According to spokesperson for Ventura Coastal Gabriella Botalla-Bell, chief human resources officer, Ventura Coastal shares EPA’s goals of a safe and healthy workplace and does not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement. She said the organization is continually looking for ways to improve operations to achieve those goals. 

“No ammonia release was alleged by EPA or involved in the allegations that were settled,” Botalla-Bell said. “Ventura Coastal and U.S. EPA have different viewpoints on the facility history and decided settlement was in the best interest of both parties.”

The settlement advances EPA’s efforts to enforce environmental regulations that protect citizens from the release of harmful, extremely hazardous substances, especially in communities that might already be disproportionately exposed to environmental risks. Visalia’s Ventura Coastal facility is in a community already affected by environmental burdens, and incidents like this raise important environmental justice concerns according to an EPA press release. 

Thousands of facilities make, use and store extremely hazardous substances like anhydrous ammonia nationwide. Anhydrous ammonia can cause serious, often irreversible health effects when released. In addition to possible health impacts from breathing in the substance or making direct skin contact, it is highly flammable.

According to the EPA, catastrophic accidents at ammonia refrigeration facilities, which are about 150 each year historically, can result in serious injuries, evacuations, other harm to human and environmental health and sometimes even fatalities. 

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