Company admits to ammonia dump

Last modified: 1/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
A Massachusetts refrigeration company has pleaded guilty to contaminating the Suncook Wastewater Treatment Facility two years ago when one of its technicians poured gallons of ammonia down the drain while servicing an industrial refrigeration system in Pembroke.

American Refrigeration Co. Inc., headquartered in Andover, Mass., faces a fine of up to $500,000 and a five-year probation. Sentencing is scheduled for April 18.

On Jan. 24, 2008, an ARC technician was performing a service job that required the removal of all ammonia from the refrigeration system's 1,683-gallon holding tank, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Morse said. After transferring most but not all of the ammonia to other parts of the system, the technician drained the rest into a floor drain, which he knew led to a public treatment plant.

The amount of ammonia poured down the drain is disputed: Prosecutors estimate as much as 212 gallons, while the company contends it was as little as 15 gallons, Morse said. Regardless, upon arrival at the wastewater plant it killed much of the organic biomass used to treat the sewage, authorities said.

As a result, the wastewater facility dumped untreated or significantly under-treated wastewater into the Merrimack River, leading to "undesirable levels of suspended solids," authorities said. The pH level of the discharge violated a condition of the plant's federal dumping permit.

The plant's operations returned to normal Jan. 28, 2008. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Services investigated the incident, Morse said.

Morse said the decision was made to charge the company and not the technician because "he's a low-level employee and we didn't think it was appropriate to charge him." A call left with ARC's headquarters yesterday was not returned.

Morse said prosecutors have recommended ARC be fined $40,000. The company's corporate probation would likely include an environmental audit by regulators, the assignment of a probation officer and a requirement that the company publish an ad in an industry publication describing its prosecution and alerting others to the danger of improper disposal of ammonia, he said.

"This prosecution should send a message of deterrence to the regulated community that the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division will not tolerate the type of criminal conduct that puts the American public and the environment at risk," Michael Hubbard, an EPA special agent in Boston who oversees criminal investigations, said in a statement.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or

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