ST. LOUIS-``I never released refrigerant into the air.'' To this day, George Hofele still maintains his innocence, even though the Missouri tire dealer made it into the annals of legal history because of what the federal government said he did-and to which he pleaded guilty.
The 53-year-old owner and president of G & H Tire and Auto Inc. in Marlborough, Mo., became the first person in the country to be prosecuted for violating the federal Clean Air Act for releasing Freon into the air while servicing vehicle air conditioners in his five-bay, suburban St. Louis shop.
On July 29, U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton sentenced Mr. Hofele, on one felony count, to two years probation and fined him $5,000. He faced a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
U.S. attorneys for the Eastern District of Missouri charged that the dealer never purchased proper Freon recovery equipment nor was certified in its proper use, but nonetheless vented into the atmosphere as many as 60 vehicle air conditioners between January 1992 and July 1993.
Mr. Hofele contends he's not guilty, and said his A/C work procedure was scrutinized by a chemist for Robinair, a division of SPX Corp. which makes Freon recovery equipment. ``He said I did it right.''
``Every A/C job that came in here-where the systems were broke down-every one was checked to see if Freon was in them,'' Mr. Hofele said. ``The gauges on my equipment showed they were empty.
``If the system is empty, there's no release of refrigerant.''
Mr. Hofele claims that over a year ago he called a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hotline set up to answer questions about new A/C regulations. ``The EPA guy told me I could break (a system) down as long as there was no refrigerant in it....I wasn't using a recovery system because the EPA man told me I didn't need one.
``I've been doing A/C work for 32 years, and I know when there's Freon in a system and when there's not.''
Of the alleged 60 instances of venting with which he was charged, the dealer said ``only about 10 to 15'' involved A/C systems that were devoid of Freon; the rest he simply recharged without any release of refrigerant.
Freon is a popular brand name for the refrigerant R-12. The chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) contained in R-12 are suspected of depleting 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.
Mr. Hofele's governmental nightmare began, he said, when ``I had two employees who were buddies-I fired them both within two weeks of one another. Their last words when they left here were that they'll get even with me. They did that.''
Federal attorneys have admitted they initiated their investigation of G & H Tire after being alerted by a former employee.
The government's victory in the case won't drive Mr. Hofele from business, he vowed. ``My customers think this is a rip off.''
He feels he's been used as an example to promote a government get-tough policy. Even though he gave federal lawyers the name of the man at the EPA with whom he spoke and the date of his call, ``it still didn't make any difference. It's strictly politics. Government at its worst.''
G & H Tire sells about 1,500 tires per year, but its primary business is automotive repairs. Mr. Hofele said the company had $250,000 in sales last year.
In a July 25 TIRE BUSINESS story, a federal attorney said Mr. Hofele had cooperated with the government by providing information about other shops. But the dealer denied that.
``I work 60 to 70 hours a week,'' he said. ``I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own business. I can't be watching other people's businesses. I don't have time for that.
``My family has been in this business for 104 years, and the future for automotive shops is going down. There are too many regulations etc., for the amount of money you get out of it. It's just not worth it anymore. The return on your money is low. Very low. And it's been dwindling over the last 10 years.''
Mr. Hofele has operated G & H Tire in various locations for 32 years. ``The biggest problem in this business,'' he lamented, ``is and has always been employees.''