THE company behind the Beresfield chicken processing plant has been found guilty of breaching its environmental licence following a toxic gas leak that hospitalised nine people.
Bartter Holdings, a subsidiary of Baiada that owns Steggles, was found guilty in the NSW Land and Environment Court on Wednesday over a anhydrous ammonia leak from a two-storey refrigeration building.
About 350 workers were evacuated from the chicken and turkey processing plant in Hawthorne St on June 29, 2018, after workers smelt the potentially deadly gas leaking from a blast freezer.
Eleven people were treated by NSW Ambulance paramedics and nine transported to hospital for observation.
Anhydrous ammonia, or liquid ammonia, is commonly used in fertilizers and refrigeration. Last week's Beirut explosion, which left thousands injured and dead, was sparked by a fire at a warehouse containing tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
At the time of the Beresfield leak, contractor Gordon Brothers Industries was completing a major upgrade of a refrigeration unit that is used to store poultry meat before distribution.
As part of the work, existing pipes that carried ammonia to the refrigeration unit had to be cut.
The court heard a contractor ignored an "out of service" tag on an ammonia liquid valve and turned it on, resulting in 2.2 kilograms leaking out.
Within seconds the worker smelt the ammonia odour and closed the value, but minutes later staff within the processing factory could smell the toxic gas and an evacuation alarm was sounded.
NSW Environment Protection Authority (NSW) took action against Bartter Holdings, that pleaded not guilty to breaching its environmental protection licence.
In the NSW Land and Environment Court on Wednesday, Justice Sandra Duggan found Bartter Holding guilty of failing to maintain the freezer unit in a "proper and efficient condition".
The court heard the contractor failed to use a pressure gauge when vacuum testing the new system and did not test it with dry nitrogen before reintroducing ammonia to check for leaks.
It was later discovered there was a base plate that had been removed from the system when it was decommissioned and a faulty weld in the pipework.
The charge carries a $1 million maximum penalty for companies and $250,000 for individuals. A further directions hearing will be held later this month.
It's not the first time that the Beresfield plant has been investigated for a chemical leak.
In October, 2016, Baiada was fined $15,000 for a chlorine leak that hospitalised 42 workers in March of that year.
At the time, the NSW EPA said it issued the fine after an investigation found the incident "could have been avoided" after a similar incident occurred at the company's Adelaide plant three years earlier.
In December, 2016, an employee was taken to hospital after a "small-scale" ammonia leak at the Beresfield poultry factory, the EPA said at the time.
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