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Firm Will Pay $1.8 Million to Settle Air Pollution Case

Environment: Fine against former owner of San Diego kelp processing plant is largest in state, EPA says.


SAN DIEGO — The former corporate owner of a kelp processing and food ingredients plant has agreed to pay a $1.8-million fine for allegedly violating air pollution standards, the largest such fine ever levied against a California company, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday.

New Jersey-based Merck and Co., former owner of the NutraSweet Kelco Co. plant in San Diego, agreed to pay the fine to settle an allegation by the U.S. Department of Justice that from 1988 to 1991 it operated the plant without proper air pollution permits or equipment.

"This facility was a major polluter, so cleaning it up means major gains in air quality for San Diego area residents," said Dave Howekamp, director of EPA's regional office in San Francisco.

As part of the settlement, the current owner, Monsanto Co., agreed to install equipment to reduce smog-causing emissions by an additional 680,000 pounds a year, about the same amount of emissions produced by 10,000 cars. The plant has already installed equipment to reduce emissions by more than 3.1 million pounds a year.

Environmental experts estimated that in 1991, before the government started pressuring the company to install better air pollution equipment, the plant was responsible for a third of all industry-related volatile organic compound emissions in the San Diego area.

Steve Zapoticzny, director of environmental safety and health at the plant, said that in settling the case the company does not concede that it was violating the law.

The Kelco plant has operated at a bay-front location in the San Diego community of Barrio Logan since 1941. It is best known as the nation's largest kelp processing operation, turning kelp, a type of seaweed, into extracts used in the manufacture of foods, cosmetics, oil and chemicals.

In recent years the plant has broadened its operations to include extracts from other plants and laboratory-produced materials. St. Louis-based Monsanto bought the plant from Merck in 1995.

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