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Sara Lee Unit, U.S. Reach Ozone Accord

Earthgrains agrees to pay record $5.25-million fine to settle allegations its bakeries leaked CFCs.

August 01, 2003|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

Sara Lee Corp.'s bakery unit, charged with leaking large volumes of ozone-depleting chemicals at its newly acquired bakeries, will pay a record $5.25-million civil fine and convert to safer refrigeration systems under a settlement announced Thursday with the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal officials said the alleged violations at 57 U.S. plants, including six in California, were the worst in the nation involving a corporation illegally releasing compounds that destroy the ozone layer.

The government investigators allege that Earthgrains Co., which Sara Lee purchased in 2001, repeatedly allowed ozone-depleting refrigerants to leak from its plants. Earthgrains is the second-largest producer of bakery goods in the nation.

Sara Lee signed a consent decree imposing the fine, but the company denied the allegations, maintaining that no ozone-depleting compounds were released from its bakeries.

"We decided to enter the agreement to avoid the expense of protracted litigation," Sara Lee spokesman Matt Hall said. "Most of the allegations contained in the lawsuit claim record-keeping violations."

The fine is equal to two days of operating profit at Sara Lee's bakery division, which totaled $98 million in its just-concluded fiscal year.

For more than a decade, international laws have regulated chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting chemicals to protect the Earth's ozone layer, which shields people and ecosystems from ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer, cataracts and other diseases. Widely used as refrigerants, CFCs have eaten a giant hole in the ozone layer that scientists say will take another 40 years to repair.

EPA officials said they investigated more than 300 appliances at the Earthgrains plants and found evidence that 189 released illegal amounts of ozone-depleting refrigerants, including some that contained more than 1,000 pounds each. The investigation began three years ago.

EPA Assistant Administrator John Peter Suarez said the settlement showed that "widespread patterns of illegal conduct ... will be met with vigorous enforcement" by the Bush administration.

He called the problems at the company's bakeries "systematic corporate-wide violations ... [that] pose serious threats to human health and the environment."

Earthgrains sells bread, buns, bagels and other products under brand names such as Sara Lee, Roman Meal, Country Hearth, Earthgrains and Healthy Choice.

Production of CFCs has been banned since 1995 under an international treaty, but some ozone-depleting substances can still be used as long as no more than 35% of the amount in an appliance leaks.

EPA and Justice officials say Earthgrains exceeded the 35% annual rate at 57 plants, failing to make prompt repairs to control R-22, a refrigerant used in bakery equipment such as water chillers and dough mixers. Under law, leaks exceeding the limit must be stopped within 30 days, with paperwork verifying that.

At the company's Fresno plant, all five appliances exceeded the leak limit and, over a three-year period, the company failed 53 times to repair those leaks in the required time, Justice Department officials said.

Other Earthgrains plants in California are in Sacramento, Oakland, Stockton, Redding and San Luis Obispo.

"At least tens of thousands of pounds" of the compounds leaked into the environment at the plants, Justice Department spokesman Blain Rethmeier said. "As far as volumes, it's difficult for us to judge because in many instances they were not keeping the appropriate records."

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