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US hydrocarbon refrigerant company cops $300K fine

Refrigerant company Enviro-Safe has been fined $US300,000 and agreed to stop marketing and selling non-compliant, unapproved hydrocarbon refrigerants as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances in the United States.

Enviro-Safe website
Enviro-Safe website

Under the consent decree, Enviro-Safe must also include warning on the packaging, website listings and marketing materials for its flammable refrigerants stating that the product is “flammable to an open flame or spark,” and advises to “proceed with caution if used in systems designed for non-flammable refrigerants”.

Enviro-Safe must also include labels providing information about use restrictions for approved substitute refrigerants under Environmental Protection Agency legislation and write to all known past customers that purchased the withdrawn products to warn them of the potential safety hazards.

So far no hydrocarbon refrigerants have been approved by the US EPA for use other than in certain equipment types that have specially designed for them, plus carry colour-coded components and warning labels.

Use of hydrocarbons in any type of air conditioning system – apart from industrial process refrigeration – as a substitute for ozone-depleting substances is illegal in the US.

Retrofitting an R134a system with hydrocarbons is more of a grey area, but hydrocarbon use for automotive applications is banned in 17 states and the EPA says that for vehicles with systems designed to use R134a “there is no reason to retrofit a new vehicle that contains HFC-134a”.

The complaint against Enviro-Safe alleged that the company “violated Clean Air Act requirements through the marketing and sale of two flammable hydrocarbon refrigerant products, ES 22a and ES 502a, as substitutes for ODS without providing the requisite information to EPA for review and approval”.

As reported in the August 2014 edition of VASA’s Hot Air newsletter, the FBI has been investigating the US hydrocarbon refrigerant market, with Enviro-Safe’s ‘22a’ product among those under scrutiny and customers asked to come forward as “possible victims”.

Enviro-Safe’s website still lists the withdrawn products, but in line with the consent decree, are segregated into an “international sales only” section and, at the time of writing, with telephone ordering only.

It also lists a number of hydrocarbon refrigerants – with online ordering for the US market activated – it claims are a replacement for R134a, which now carry the flammability warnings Enviro-Safe agreed to in the court action.

Worryingly, Enviro-Safe makes a selling point of the fact its hydrocarbon refrigerant “does not contain the ‘rotten egg, sulphur, propane’ odour”. In other words, it is lacking a major safety feature.

The FBI alert pointed to this fact and advised “victims” to immediately contact their local fire department if they suspected a leak.

Enviro-Safe hits back

Following the Justice Department’s announcement, Enviro-Safe vice president Randy Price slammed the press release, claiming it “gave a very inaccurate picture of Enviro-Safe and its operations”.

“Although having sold its products for nearly 20 years, Enviro-Safe voluntarily decided nearly one year ago to not sell two of its refrigerant products. EPA’s press release inaccurately states that Enviro-Safe just now agreed not to sell two products, when in fact Enviro-Safe has voluntarily not sold those two products in the USA for nearly the past year.”

Echoing the penchant for a conspiracy theory of other hydrocarbon refrigerant retrofit promoters around the world, Mr Price accused the EPA of responding to complaints from his Enviro-Safe’s competitors.

“Although EPA’s regulations have not changed significantly since 1994, EPA recently took aim at Enviro-Safe because our competitors had complained to EPA that Enviro-Safe’s products were taking market share and argued to EPA that it should require Enviro-Safe products to be approved,” he said.

“Enviro-Safe Refrigerants, Inc. has been and still is operating in full compliance with all environmental regulations and believes it has never sold its refrigerant products without EPA approval when such approval was required.

“Since the EPA regulations were adopted in 1994 as part of the United States’ commitment to the Montreal Protocol to reduce global warming, Enviro-Safe has been selling its refrigerants throughout the world and in the USA.”

The consent decree acknowledges that “Enviro-Safe has denied and continues to deny, all violations alleged in the FOV (finding of violation) and Complaint,” and that “Enviro-Safe does not admit any liability to the United States arising out of the transactions or occurrences alleged in the FOV and the Complaint”.