Cut Pork Plant Ammonia Line Forces Evac

Friday, June 20, 2014 @ 06:06 PM gHale

Over 2,400 employees evacuated the world’s largest pork processing plant Tuesday after a hot water tower collapsed and ruptured an ammonia container.

As of Tuesday evening, production at Smithfield Processing in Tar Heel, NC, was still on hold as investigators went through the facility. There was no word on when it would re-open.

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“Our main concern is for the safety of our employees and the community, and all employees have been evacuated,” Kathleen Kirkham, a spokeswoman for Smithfield, said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “We are also working with local authorities to secure the facility.”

As many as 40 workers required treatment for a combination of ammonia inhalation and heat stress. Emergency crews from Bladen, Cumberland and Robeson counties responded.

At least seven people went via ambulance to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center for treatment for respiratory distress. One was undergoing admission, said Dr. Michael Zappa, the hospital’s assistant chief medical officer. The rest ended up treated and released.

“We received notification from EMS on the scene with an assessment that alerted us to what type patient to expect,” Zappa said.

Additional staff, as many as 20, were brought in to set up a decontamination area outside the Emergency Department and to treat the patients, he said.

Each patient underwent decontamination, given fresh clothes and treated with oxygen and aerosol, “similar to how you would treat someone with asthma,” Zappa said.

Exposure to ammonia causes the bronchial tubes to go into spasms, Zappa said. To open the airways, the tubes must be relaxed. Some cases take longer than others, he said, and people with asthma or COPD are at higher risk.

The plant’s first shift workers, about 2,400 in all, walked a mile south from the site into Tar Heel in 95-degree temperatures with a heat index topping 100 degrees.

Chief Deputy Randy Hester of the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office said one of the plant’s industrial water heating tanks that provide hot water to the killing and cutting floors collapsed. Each tank holds 300,000 gallons, the same as about 7,500 regular home water heaters.

As the tank collapsed, water shoved a car-sized generator into an ammonia tank. The force tore the tank’s pipes loose, Hester said.

That happened outside the plant, he said, but the smell drifted inside. Ammonia gas sees use in industrial refrigeration systems, but can be toxic when inhaled.

There was no explosion, Hester said.

Officials directed employees to Tar Heel Middle School. There, workers received water and snacks, and anyone needing medical attention got treatment.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation closed a 5-mile stretch of N.C. 87 in both directions, and they diverted traffic several miles away for several hours.

Later, school activity buses from Bladen County slowly rolled back and forth on the empty highway, offering rides to clusters of employees trudging south.

By noon, workers capped the leak, and officials began inspecting the plant. A HazMat team from Fayetteville was also on the scene.

An hour later, buses began transporting workers back to the plant’s sprawling parking areas to pick up their cars and go home.

By 5 p.m., workers were able to get back into the building. While the company cancelled the second shift, some workers volunteered to stay and help clean up the damage.

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