Processor to Pay $450,000 Fine for Fatal Waterloo Plant Violations

By George Ford, Reporter

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By Aaron Hepker

WATERLOO, Iowa - A South Dakota meat processor has agreed to pay a $450,000 civil penalty to settle alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act at a Waterloo plant that resulted in the death of an employee and permanent disability for another.

Beef Products Inc. (BPI), as part of a consent decree filed April 23 in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids, also agreed to conduct third-party audits of its compliance with the Clean Air Act’s risk management program requirements at the company’s South Sioux City, Neb., facility.

BPI will then have 90 days to submit a plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will correct identified violations within a year.

The April 23 settlement stems from a 2007 incident at the now-closed Waterloo facility that released more than 1,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia into a production area occupied by BPI workers. The anhydrous ammonia trapped two BPI employees, which resulted in the death of an employee and another becoming permanently disabled.

During the response to the release, BPI reportedly directed its employees to enter the facility while dangerous levels of airborne anhydrous ammonia continued to be present.

After the 2007 incident, the EPA gathered information about the ammonia release and plant operations through information requests and an inspection. Based on its investigation, the agency determined that BPI did have a risk management program on paper but failed to implement the program at the Waterloo plant , contributing to the 2007 incident.

Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said implementing a risk management program is integral to the safe operation of processing facilities where anhydrous ammonia is used.

"The 2007 incident in Waterloo demonstrates that having a plan only on paper increases the risk of accidental exposure to both employees and first responders," Brooks said.

Anhydrous ammonia is considered a poisonous gas, but is commonly used in industrial refrigeration systems. Exposure to its vapors can cause temporary blindness and eye damage and irritation of the skin, mouth, throat, respiratory tract and mucous membranes.

Prolonged exposure to anhydrous ammonia vapor at high concentrations can lead to serious lung damage and death.

The BPI plant in Waterloo was closed in May 2012 after national news reports questioned the safety of its lean finely textured beef — which came to be called "pink slime" — leading McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wal-Mart and school lunch programs to abandon the product.

Although the product was deemed safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, BPI saw demand plummet from 5.5 million pounds in 2009 to 2 million pounds. The family-owned company closed three of its four processing facilities and laid off more than 700 employees.

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