PA, Ammonia leak forces evacuation at plant : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Thursday, May 25, 2000 By LAURA RITTER Staff Writer

LEBANON -- Ninety-eight employees of the Murry's food packaging plant were evacuated shortly after 4 p.m. yesterday after a rooftop pipe carrying ammonia failed, sending ammonia streaming onto the roof. As the liquid vaporized, a plume of acrid vapor rose into the air. Strong breezes carried the pungent odor northward from the plant at 15th and Willow streets. Liquid anhydrous ammonia and a fog of vapor also found their way into rooftop storm drains, which then carried ammonia down to the Brandywine Creek. The small tributary of the Quittapahilla Creek runs through a concrete culvert along the east end of the plant.

Emergency Management Agency Director Clyde Miller said this morning no estimate of the amount of ammonia that ran out of the pipe was yet available. EMA's HazMat team was concerned about the high concentration of ammonia that had seeped into the Brandywine Creek, Miller said.

Wearing bright blue moon suits for protection, HazMat team members poured vinegar, which is acidic, into the creek to neutralize the alkaline ammonia.

"We concentrated our efforts on the product that escaped from the pipe and entered the Brandywine," Miller said this morning. "We were worried about reports of rain -- they dumped vinegar to neutralize the ammonia and prevent an additional environmental impact."

A state Department of Environmental Protection official doesn't think it was a good idea. Mark Schaffer, assistant program manager of emergency response for DEP, said this morning, "We don't practice chemistry in a Commonwealth waterway" because adding more chemicals to a hazardous spill can make the problem worse.

Residents in the area of 14th and Brandywine streets were the first to report strong odors. That was about 4:07 p.m. Residents of that area were warned by emergency personnel to stay inside and close their windows. Strong but shifting winds that blew through the area late yesterday afternoon helped dissipate the cloud of vapor created by the ammonia leak.

Emergency crews were dispatched to Murry's at 4:18 p.m. and remained on the scene until 7:30 p.m.

"The cause of the accident is an isolated pipe failure," said Murry's Vice President Tony Lucci. A weld at the end of a pipe ruptured, he said. Plant engineers identified the problem, isolated the leak and repaired it by about 10:30 p.m., he said.

Some workers reported that as they were evacuated, they could see a white cloud rising from stormwater drains that lead to the Hazel Dyke.

"When we came out, you could see smoke coming out from the (drainage) tunnel," one worker said. Second-shift workers were sent home, but third-shift workers, who do daily cleanup at the plant, were on the job last night, and by this morning operations had returned to normal.

Lucci said the ammonia odor was not strong inside the plant, and food temperatures inside the plant were maintained. No product was lost, except for about 200 pounds of chicken wings, which he said were left in an oven when the plant was evacuated.

"We started on time this morning," he said.

Anhydrous ammonia is used at the plant to absorb heat in large refrigeration units. Inside the refrigeration units, the ammonia is a pressurized liquid.

But when it is not under pressure, the ammonia quickly vaporizes in an acrid fog. That's what happened yesterday when the pipe ruptured.

DEP's Schaffer said ammonia is a strong oxidizer that has the potential for increasing cumbustion. "If there had been a fire involved, the ammonia could increase the intensity," he said.

It's also a "very, very strong irritant that can be dangerous in high concentrations," he said. "Basically, if you breathe enough of it, it will deteriorate lung tissue."

Workers felt the effects of the ammonia about 5:30, when the odor became especially intense in the area close to the Brandywine Creek where workers had been told to gather while they awaited further instruction. They were relocated to a parking lot west of the plant until they could be escorted back into the plant to retrieve belongings from their lockers and sent home. No one reported symptoms of ammonia exposure, hospital officials said yesterday.

An ammonia leak was previously reported in August, but it occurred on a Sunday when only about 15 workers were on the job. No one was injured.

A major ammonia incident also occurred in July 1988, when emergency workers were on the scene for 14 hours. Murry's faced up to $9 million in fines, but after negotiations, a fine of $51,250 was imposed.

Murry's produces a variety of frozen foods including steaks, hamburgers, french toast and chicken nuggets.

-- Doris (, May 25, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ