WASHINGTON-Representatives of the former chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) industry are helping the federal government trace illegal imports of the refrigerant CFC-12, also known as Freon, and other ozone-depleting chemicals. As many as 20 million pounds annually of black-market CFCs enter the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Customs Service and the Internal Revenue Service. Freon, which accounts for most of the im-ports, was until recently the most commonly used cooling agent in automobile and other air conditioning units.
According to the Montreal Protocol, all CFC production must cease in developed nations by Jan. 1, 1996, although some developing countries may continue to make them until 2010.
The EPA estimates 30 percent of all CFC's released into theatmosphere come from mobile air conditioners, and the majority of those releases occur during A/C service and repair.
Because of the black market, there are now numerous places where consumers can buy Freon at less than even the current federal excise tax of $4.35 per pound, according to Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy (ARAP).
``The federal excise tax on CFCs.*.*.*combined with their rapid phaseout, has resulted in black market activity reminiscent of the Prohibition era in the late 1920s,'' Mr. Fay said. Organized crime in the U.S., Eastern Europe and the Near and Far East are rumored to be involved, he added.
To assist the government crackdown, the ARAP has formed a Refrigerant Import Committee, Mr. Fay said. This committee will inform government offices of the normal commercial process for the routing of CFCs, and also provide tips of suspected illegal activities.
The U.S. auto industry has phased out Freon as a refrigerant in new vehicle models. To replace R-12, automakers have begun using the more environmentally friendly refrigerant R-134a.
Some service shops also are using various ``blended'' refrigerants, but the new refrigerants can't be used in old-style auto A/C units. The Clean Air Act requires that R-134a be recycled.
Venting refrigerant into theatmosphere is a violation of the Clean Air Act. Auto repairers now must follow stringent federal rules for recapturing and recycling refrigerant from A/C units, or face stiff penalties that can total more than $200,000 for non-compliance.
That necessitates shops to invest in expensive recovery equipment, which adds to the attractiveness of black-market Freon.