Up until the 1980s, the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, generally attributed to release of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), was growing and, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), represented one of the most serious environmental threats to the planet.
To combat this critical situation, the Montreal Protocol was created, issued in 1987 to address the worldwide ozone problem by gradually replacing CFCs and HCFCs with substitute chemicals that would be less harmful to the ozone layer. EPA subsequently incorporated the Montreal Protocol provisions into the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (Title VI) and codified the regulations as Title 40, Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR Part 82). Because of the EPA’s successful implementation of these regulations, the ozone layer gradually has regenerated as CFC and HCFCs have been phased out.
So why, in 2019, roughly 30 years later, are environmental professionals struggling with how to comply with regulations that have been such a success? Here is a summary of the regulations, the controversy surrounding them and what can be done to meet requirements.
Updates to 40 CFR Part 82
Titled “Protection of Stratospheric Ozone,” 40 CFR Part 82 covers several sections. The regulation required chemical manufacturers of CFCs and HCFCs — collectively called ozone-depleting compounds (ODCs) — to gradually phase out the production of ODCs. (CFCs were phased out completely by 1996; HCFC production was cut by 90% by 2015 and will be completely eliminated by 2030.)
The regulation also impacted companies and organizations that use refrigerants in equipment, such as air conditioners, process chillers and freezers. The most substantive requirements of the regulation, prior to 2016, are summarized below:
- Persons working on refrigeration units with ODCs must be certified and use certified refrigerant recovery equipment.
- Owners of refrigeration units containing greater than 50 pounds of ODCs must calculate leak rates and repair leaks exceeding allowable leak rates in a timely manner.
- Records of the units and leak rates and repair verification reports must be kept by the owner, even if all of the work is done by an outside contractor.
- The substantive requirements — leak rate and repair requirements — do not apply to substitute refrigerants prior to 2016.
Like industrial facilities, hospitals also are facing a number of complex environmental regulations and update requirements, including air emission permitting and emission limits for sources, such as boilers and emergency electrical generator engines. In addition, their air conditioning units and chillers are subject to the EPA refrigerant regulations in 40 CFR Part 82 as well. But where hospitals differ from typical industrial facilities is the number of refrigeration units subject to substantive environmental regulations. For hospitals, compliance with the 40 CFR Part 82 regulations is typically the most complex and cumbersome air emission-related requirement.
November 2016 Revisions
The November 2016 revisions affected various refrigeration processes and reduced the allowable leak rates, as follows:
- Industrial process refrigeration from 35% to 30%
- Commercial refrigeration from 35% to 20%
- Comfort cooling from 15% to 10%
Other notable updates:
- The leak rate must be calculated every time refrigerant is added to a unit containing greater than 50 pounds of refrigerant. This was implied but not explicitly stated in the old regulation.
- Periodic leak inspections are required for certain units with charges greater than 50 pounds that have experienced leaks above the allowable leak rate.
- An annual report must be submitted to the EPA for units classified as “chronically leaking appliances.”
- Records associated with the recovery of refrigerant prior to disposal of the unit for certain size units must be kept.
It should be noted that the applicability date for these provisions varied, with some not taking effect until 2019.
The most significant revision that drew industry resistance was the provision that the leak rate requirements became applicable to units containing substitute refrigerants, effective January 2019.
This change was particularly cumbersome to companies that had invested significant capital expense throughout the past 10 to 20 years. Many already had replaced CFC and HCFC units with those that contained substitute refrigerants, thinking that not only were they doing the right thing for the environment but also substantially reducing regulatory burdens.
If hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), classified as substitute refrigerants, were designed to replace HCFCs and CFCs and have reduced potential damage to the ozone layer, why did the EPA effectively “go after” these substitute refrigerants in the 2016 revision?
One reason is that while substitute refrigerants have limited adverse impacts on stratospheric ozone, they are still categorized as a greenhouse gas (GHG) with high global warming potential (GWP). A common HFC, 1,1,2,2-tetraflouroethane, commonly referred to as R-134a, has a GWP of 1,300, meaning that 1 ton of R-134a is equivalent to 1,300 tons of carbon dioxide in terms of global warming impacts.
Some industry groups protested the November 2016 revisions based on the fact that the regulations were issued to reduce GHGs under the disguise of the “Protection of Stratospheric Ozone” regulation. And the current EPA administration appeared to be sympathetic to those criticisms. On Oct. 1, 2018, the EPA proposed a rule to roll back the major components of the November 2016 revision, with the most significant one limiting the leak repair provisions to ODCs and not HFCs.
As with many environmental issues, the EPA is getting resistance from both sides. Environmental groups are pushing the EPA to hold the rule as-is on the basis that it is a win-win for global warming and protection of stratospheric ozone. However, several industries are in opposition, stating that their early efforts to reduce both ODC emissions and regulatory burdens long term were negated by the November 2016 revisions.
Regardless of when, or if, the regulation is revised, facilities still are required meet allowable leak rate, repair and recordkeeping requirements for all refrigeration units containing more than 50 pounds, including those containing substitute refrigerants. Since companies must continue to meet the November 2016 revisions, they should use this time to verify adequate procedures, such as worker and contractor training and record-keeping practices, and confirm that proper inspections are in place to meet current and anticipated regulatory requirements.
See how one hospital in St. Louis is addressing compliance requirements to eliminate regulatory concerns.