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Arrests in USA for illegal hydrocarbon refrigerant use

Authorities in the United States including the FBI, EPA and US Department of Transportation are cracking down on the illegal sale of unapproved hydrocarbon refrigerants used in home air-conditioning systems, culminating in a series of arrests.

In contrast to the situation in Australia, where the culture of enforcement is not nearly as strong, joint investigations are gathering momentum – and producing results – in the US, targeting propane (R290) and other unapproved refrigerants sold as a substitute for HCFC-22 (R22).

Products marketed as a drop-in replacement, second-generation and non-ozone-depleting HC refrigerant – under the brand names Super-Freeze 22a, Super-Freeze 12a, Super-Freeze 134a, Enviro-Safe 22a, HC-22a, R-22a and CARE 40, to name a few – have been specifically identified by the US EPA as posing a fire and explosion risk when used in air-con systems not designed to handle them. 

Warning against the use of unapproved refrigerants in air-conditioning systems, the EPA said it was aware of incidents in the US and overseas involving technicians, homeowners, propane suppliers and other individuals who were injured as a result. 

In Louisiana, Attorney General Jeff Landry recently announced that a joint investigation between the FBI, EPA and his office’s criminal division had led to the arrest of a 34-year-old man who was charged with a number of offences surrounding the sale of a substitute refrigerant, including to air-conditioning professionals who bought the product online. 

Director of the EPA’s Criminal Enforcement Division, Doug Parker, said in a statement: “Selling a flammable refrigerant that has not been EPA-approved can have dangerous consequences for public health and safety. In this case, the product was actually propane – creating a dangerous situation when the product caught fire, burned and injured a technician.”

Scores of criminal and civil cases relating to the illegal importation and sale of unapproved HCFC-22 substitutes have been successfully concluded in recent years, and the pressure is being maintained via ongoing investigations and formal processes in place such as a victim assistance program run through the FBI. 

Cautious HC expansion under SNAP, retrofits still banned

The US EPA is proposing to expand the list of acceptable hydrocarbon refrigerants under its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program for use in specific new air-conditioning and refrigeration applications. 

Since the major crackdown on the illegal importation and sale of certain HCFC-22 (R22) substitutes launched in 2013, the EPA has subsequently approved a number of hydrocarbon refrigerants for use in specific end uses. 

These include propane (R290), ethane (R170), isobutane (R600a) and the HC blend R441A, although the EPA maintains that these must only be used in equipment designed specifically for them and with appropriate safeguards. Retrofits to existing equipment remain prohibited. 

The EPA is now proposing to list propane as acceptable, subject to use conditions, as a refrigerant in new self-contained commercial ice machines, new water coolers and in new very-low-temperature refrigeration equipment.

The EPA is also proposing to exempt propane in these end uses from the venting prohibition under section 608 of the Clean Air Act.

Among other proposed changes, the EPA wants to extend the acceptability of HFO-1234yf, subject to conditions, beyond new light-duty passenger vehicles to medium-duty passenger vehicles (MDPVs), heavy-duty (HD) pick-up trucks and complete HD vans.

At the same time, the agency proposes to list as unacceptable certain flammable hydrocarbon refrigerants and HC blends for retrofitting existing residential and light commercial air-conditioning and heat pump applications designed for non-flammable refrigerants.

It also wants to ban propylene (R1270) and the HC blend R-443A in specific end uses in the refrigeration and air-conditioning sector.