Caught on camera: Pollutant released into air, EPA says

BALL GROUND, Ga. — A former employee of a metro Atlanta HVAC company said he had to share videos of workers releasing a pollutant into the air from old air conditioners.

Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray took the videos to three different HVAC companies and the EPA.

They all said it looks like clear violations of the Clean Air Act.

Cell phone videos show Freon being vented from old HVAC units into the air in a Cherokee County neighborhood.

“Just like Old Faithful going off in the yard where they just cut to copper. I’ve never seen that,” Charles Rife said.

He recorded the cell phone video.

“This is not the way you’re supposed to dispose of this?” Gray asked. “No, you’re supposed to recover it,” Rife answered.

He is a former Fritts Heating & Air employee.

The video shows other Fritts employees and Fritts trucks.

“There was hundreds of units stacked up in that pile. I mean, hundreds. And they’re all gone,” said Rife.

He said he saw this happen on two separate occasions when he was sent by his supervisor at Fritts to help scrap old units so they could be sent to a recycling center.

“I was told by the owner that their employees know what to do and just do it,” Rife said.

But venting refrigerant is against federal law. It’s a violation of the Clean Air Act.

Channel 2 showed the video to licensed technicians at three different HVAC companies. They all had similar reactions.

“It was atrocious, to be honest with you. These are the kind of things that our industry ends up getting a black eye for,” Andrew Navarro, the HVAC Service Manager at R.S. Andrews said.

Navarro showed the proper way to release freon.

“What we do is we turn on the machine here, and we evacuate the refrigerant out of this unit into the recovery tank,” said Navarro.

An EPA-certified HVAC technician would normally recover the Freon out of the unit before ever leaving the home or business where it had been installed. That can take more than an hour.

“It takes a lot of time to properly do it. The recovery machines that are used, I mean they’re pretty expensive. Every one of our trucks have them,” Navarro said.

He said venting is a time and money savings shortcut.

“It was obvious disregard for any kind of EPA regulations or our environment,” Navarro said.

Those regulations are serious business.

A Clean Air Act Violation could lead to fines of up to $37,500 a day for venting.

“In the end, it’s up to the company to train your workers,” Rife said.

Gray first tried calling Fritts Heating & Air. They hung up on him twice.

Gray went to their Ball Ground office, but they had locked the doors and turned off the lobby lights.

A house was listed as a secondary address. A man who responded through a doorbell said, “You know there’s always two sides to every story of course.”

“Of course, which is why we are trying so hard to reach out to them,” Gray said.

Eventually, the owner of Fritts did refer Gray to their attorney who emailed us this statement:

“Fritts Heating & Air has learned of allegations made by a former employee regarding potential EPA violations.

As a company, we absolutely deny that we have knowingly violated any EPA regulations. Fritts Heating & Air has been serving Metro Atlanta for over ten years. Our company has always taken great pride in providing quality service to our customers, with a resolve to be stewards of the environment that we all share. Fritts Heating & Air provides regular training, and environmentally-friendly equipment to our employees that both exceed industry standards. We are disappointed that a disgruntled former employee would come forth with these false allegations against our company.”

Channel 2 turned the video over to the EPA who told us:

“The Clean Air Act prohibits the venting or releasing of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) or their substitutes (including refrigerants) into the air. ODSs damage the stratospheric ozone layer and ozone depletion means less protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UVB) radiation. EPA has shared the information you provided with our enforcement programs, however, our policy is not to comment on enforcement activities. Anyone can report suspected violations of environmental laws on our website: Report Environmental Violations | ECHO | US EPA”

Rife said he also reported this to both federal and state officials after quitting his job at Fritts.

“I mean, that’s just flagrant. Like we don’t care, I would say,” Rife said.

Any HVAC technician working with Freon is supposed to have an EPA certification. To get it, they would be trained in the proper disposal of Freon.

Channel 2 asked Fritts if all their techs are EPA certified, and their attorney said they are.

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