Two of area’s biggest food and beverage companies settle over improper handling of ammonium

Two of area’s biggest food and beverage companies settle over improper handling of ammonium

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week announced settlements with two Watsonville companies–S. Martinelli & Co. and Del Mar Food Products Corp., both of which employ a large number of South Santa Clara County workers–for mishandling of the toxic refrigerant anhydrous ammonia. As part of the agreements, the companies have updated their equipment which handles the chemical, and will pay out combined hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.

Del Mar Foods, which prepares frozen fruits and vegetables, and S. Martinelli & Co., which produces popular apple cider and juice products, both use anhydrous ammonium as a refrigerant. If handled improperly, it can lead to everything from severe respiratory injuries to death.

“[It] is toxic and can threaten workers, first responders and the public, so it’s imperative that facilities using this chemical follow federal requirements to prevent accidents,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman in a press release. “EPA will hold to account companies that don’t comply with environmental laws.”

The EPA first flagged both companies during inspections in September 2021. Follow-up investigations found that both Del Mar Foods and S. Martinelli and Co. were not managing their use of anhydrous ammonium properly, putting them in violation of the Clean Air Act.

The agency found that Del Mar Foods also had one minor release that took place during their inspection as well as eleven “nuisance releases” of the chemical which they had failed to report. No injuries were reported after any of the releases. Additionally, the EPA found that S. Martinelli & Co. failed to properly plan with local emergency responder for a possible ammonium release.

While the use of the anhydrous ammonium is widespread, “catastrophic accidents at ammonia refrigeration facilities—historically about 150 each year—result in fatalities and serious injuries, evacuations, and other harm to human health and the environment,” said EPA spokesperson Joshua Alexander over email.

Since the investigation, both companies have repaired damaged equipment and made steps to improve safety policies surrounding their handling of the refrigerant.

“In full cooperation with the EPA inspection, Del Mar Foods completed all the corrective action items months ago,” said company president PJ Mecozzi in a written statement. Del Mar Foods will also pay $131,420 in settlement to the EPA.

S. Martinelli & Co. is still in the process of updating its facility, but has agreed to pay $127,828 and purchase $67,000 in emergency response equipment for the Watsonville Fire Department.

S. Martinelli & Co declined to provide a statement after multiple requests for comment.