Industrial Baker Fined $5.25 Million for Ozone Depletion

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - The nation's second largest baker has agreed to pay a $5.25 million dollar fine for releasing ozone depleting substances into the atmosphere and to convert all of its industrial process refrigeration appliances to refrigerant systems that do not deplete the ozone layer.

Earthgrains, a division of the Sara Lee Corporation, has consented to the fine and replacement program "to avoid protracted litigation," according to spokesman Matt Hall, but the company denies all allegations against it lodged by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The United States' complaint alleges that Earthgrains' large industrial process appliances at 57 of its 67 facilities from West Virginia to California leaked refrigerants in excess of the 35 percent annualized leak rate permitted by regulation, and that Earthgrains failed to make prompt, proper repairs.

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Industrial refrigerants used in making bread can deplete the ozone layer. (Photo courtesy USDA)
More than 300 large appliances containing the ozone depleting refrigerant, several containing 1,000 pounds or more of refrigerant each, were involved in the investigation.

"Such systematic, corporate wide violations of the Clean Air Act pose serious threats to both human health and the environment and will not be tolerated," said EPA's John Peter Suarez, the assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. "This settlement is evidence to the fact that such widespread patterns of illegal conduct that degrade the ozone layer will be met with vigorous enforcement by the United States."

But Hall today denied that Earthgrains is not in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Hall said that Earthgrains had independently begun a refrigerant upgrade program in 1994 that will be completed in 2006, and the company is committed to operating in an environmentally responsible way.

Earthgrains will continue to use the same refrigerant it has been using, Hall said, R22 or HCFC-22, a single component HCFC refrigerant with a lower ozone depletion potential than other substances that have been used for refrigeration in the past. The EPA has placed HCFC-22 on its approved list of acceptable substitutes.

The company is reducing the number of pieces of equipment it uses, which will result in less refrigerant use overall, and nine of the companies bakeries have been closed for reasons unrelated to the refrigerant charges, Hall said.

"To date, we have addressed equipment at more than half the bakeries in this agreement," he said.

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U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti (Photo courtesy DOJ)
But Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti claims credit for forcing the industrial baker to obey the law. "This case addresses pollution that has a global impact and displays the department's aggressive pursuit of those who commit illegal acts that degrade the ozone layer, he said. "This settlement demonstrates our unwavering commitment to hold accountable polluters who gain a competitive advantage when they shirk their responsibility to comply with laws that protect public health."

Earthgrains biggest brands are Sara Lee, Earthgrains, IronKids, Rainbow, and Colonial. In addition, the company bakes products that are marketed nationwide under more than 100 store brands, as well as the Merico label. Some are franchise brands such as Roman Meal bread made by Earthgrains in St. Louis.

Earthgrains bakes products sold under the labels Healthy Choice, Pillsbury, Country Hearth, San Luis Sourdough, Holsum, Sunbeam, Taystee, and Mother's, among other brand names.

The sales and operating profits generated by the Earthgrains business for the first 38 days of fiscal 2003 were $284 million and $17 million, respectively, the Sara Lee Corporation reported today in a statement.

This case is the Justice Department's second corporate wide case against an industrial baker. In the fall of 2000, Meyer's Bakeries, Inc. settled its violations by paying a civil penalty of $3.5 million and converting all its appliances to non-ozone depleting refrigerants.

In the summer of 2001, Air Liquide, a producer of industrial gases, settled its corporate wide violations of these leak detection and repair requirements by paying a $4.5 million penalty and spending $500,000 on environmentally beneficial projects, in addition to converting its refrigerant systems to equipment that does not deplete the ozone layer.

The ozone layer protects humans and animals from damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. Excessive exposure to UV radiation can cause cataracts, skin cancer, and other health problems. Increased UV radiation can also lead to reduced crop yield and disruptions in the marine food chain.

When refrigerants containing chlorofluorocarbons reach the stratosphere, the ultraviolet radiation from the sun causes them to break apart and release chlorine atoms which react with ozone, starting chemical cycles of ozone destruction that deplete the ozone layer, according to the EPA. One chlorine atom can break apart more than 100,000 ozone molecules.

In the 1980s, the Antarctic ozone hole appeared and an international science assessment linked the release of refrigerants containing chlorine to ozone depletion.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was signed and the signatory nations, including the United States, committed themselves to a reduction in the use of ozone depleting substances.

Atmospheric scientists say that if humans stop producing ozone depleting substances, natural ozone production reactions should return the ozone layer to normal levels by about 2050.