ST. LOUIS-A Missouri tire dealer has the distinction of being the first person in the country to be prosecuted for violating the federal Clean Air Act by willfully releasing Freon into the atmosphere while servicing vehicle air conditioners. George Hofele, 53, president of the one-outlet G&H Tire and Auto Inc. in Marlborough, Mo., pleaded guilty May 11 in federal court before U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton, and faces a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 29.
The stratospheric ozone protection provision of the Clean Air Act, which took effect Jan. 1, 1992, mandates that any shop servicing vehicle air conditioning units must use Freon recovery equipment, and technicians must be certified to work on the systems.
Freon is a popular brand name of refrigerant R-12. The chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) contained in R-12 are said to deplete the Earth's protective ozone layer, leading to increased ultraviolet radiation which could cause environmental damage, skin cancer and suppression of the human immune response system.
In a plea agreement, Mr. Hofele admitted not using approved refrigerant recycling equipment and that he was neither properly trained nor certified to do the work.
Working on a tip from a former G&H Tire employee, federal investigators accused Mr. Hofele of venting Freon from an estimated 60 auto air conditioners between January 1992 and July 1993.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick M. Flachs, who helped prosecute the case, on July 3, 1993, an unmarked state Highway Patrol car was in Mr. Hofele's shop for service that did not include air conditioning work. However, the patrolman ``contacted us when he realized that A/C servicing was being done on the premises,'' but proper recycling equipment was not present.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division and the FBI obtained a warrant to search the dealership.
The EPA-which has banned the production of R-12 refrigerant after 1995-estimates 30 percent of all CFCs released into the atmosphere come from mobile air conditioners, and the majority of those releases occur during A/C service and repair.
The action against the dealer-called a ``landmark air pollution case'' by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri-also represents a get-tough attitude by the government against Clean Air Act violators.
In a statement released after Mr. Hofele's guilty plea, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon noted ``hundreds of other businesses in the St. Louis area that work on vehicle air conditioners have invested in the proper equipment.
``They complied with a law Mr. Hofele apparently felt did not apply to him, and so he tried to cut corners.
``Such abuse of the law and the environment that also can harm human health cannot and will not be tolerated.''
If Mr. Hofele had purchased the proper Freon recovery equipment-which captures and filters the refrigerant for reuse-Mr. Nixon said the dealer would have recouped his initial investment of $2,000 to $3,000 within a year to 14 months.
U.S. Attorney Edward L. Dowd Jr., who also prosecuted the case, vowed that the government ``will investigate and prosecute defendants who damage the ozone layer as aggressively as we can. We owe it to everyone in our society to protect the environment.''
Despite his guilty plea, Mr. Hofele maintains he never vented Freon from any A/C units, that the charge is ``completely wrong-there never was any refrigerant released here at all.''
That's where he and the government have what Mr. Flachs called a ``fundamental difference.'' Mr. Hofele contends ``there's a means to service a vehicle and not release Freon,'' the attorney said.
But two government experts say that is impossible and that once the system is ``cracked,'' any Freon in it will escape.
Prohibited by his lawyers and the court from commenting directly on the case, the tire dealer told TIRE BUSINESS he feels ``the system (is) corrupt.'' Nonetheless, he isn't planning to fight the matter any further because ``they have the system (set up) so that if you want to fight them, they're going to break you.
``That's the American way. The power overcomes the little guy.''
He said he bought proper air conditioning recycling equipment this past January, and performs about 60 A/C jobs a year.
Because he has been ``forthright and cooperative,'' Mr. Flachs said Mr. Hofele may not have to serve any jail time, partly because ``early on...he agreed to give us information about other aspects of his business as well as about other businesses we're interested in.''
Acknowledging that the government is investigating other service shops for possible violations, Mr. Flachs would not say whether any more tire dealerships are involved, only that Mr. Hofele provided information ``that we're now acting upon.''
A resident of Chesterfield, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, Mr. Hofele has operated his business 32 years-18 of them in downtown St. Louis, then for 12 years elsewhere in St. Louis County. He moved the dealership to its Marlborough location two years ago.
Auto service accounts for about 65 percent of his business, Mr. Hofele said. G*&*H carries Kelly-Springfield tires as its primary line, as well as Michelin and Pirelli.