Bringing its first cases to protect the earth’s ozone layer, the Justice Department on Friday sued five importers of chlorofluorocarbons, alleging violations of the Clean Air Act and an Environmental Protection Agency rule restricting production of the substances.
Announcing the action in London, where he is heading the U.S. delegation to an international conference on phasing out CFCs, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly said, “They did it, and we are taking action as a measure of our seriousness.”
Unitor Ships Service Inc. of Long Beach and four other companies are alleged to have imported CFCs into the United States without obtaining permits from the EPA. The requirement is the result of a Jan. 1, 1989, rule governing production and importation of the substances.
Fehr Bros. of New York immediately settled its case, agreeing to a $101,935 penalty and promising to comply with the EPA rule, the Justice Department said.
Fehr was alleged to have imported 432,102 pounds of CFC-113, a cleaning solvent, without a permit.
Richard B. Stewart, assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s environment and natural resources division, said the suits “make clear that we take our obligation seriously under the Montreal Protocol.” The protocol, signed by the United States and 23 other nations on Sept. 16, 1987, restricts the production and consumption of CFCs, which are known to deplete the ozone layer.
The five suits cover all matters the EPA has referred to the department for legal action, Stewart said. But he noted that the agency “regards this as a priority, so there may well be more.”
“Despite these violations, most companies are obeying the law, and the United States continues to be in compliance with the Montreal Protocol,” EPA said.
Paul Berg, president of Unitor Ships Service, said he is “rather upset” about the suit “because we were advised wrongly” by the EPA’s Seattle office.
Unitor last fall responded to a cruise ship’s “emergency” call for CFC-11 by transferring 1,270 kilograms of the coolant from its Vancouver office--after first checking with EPA, Berg said. He added that Unitor exported a similar amount of the substance to Canada when it learned of EPA’s objection.
He said EPA has proposed a settlement, the amount of which he would not disclose, and his company has accepted. “We don’t have the resources to fight the government,” he said.
If it lost the case in court, Berg said, it could be fined as much as $25,000 for each kilogram of CFC that it imported. That could run into millions of dollars, he said.
The other defendants are two Puerto Rican firms, Harris and Devoe Paints Corp. and Oscar Hernandez Vinas, and Airco Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J. They could not be reached or declined comment Friday.