7 in intensive care after ammonia leak at Alabama plant prompts 130 to seek medical attention

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

7 in intensive care after Ala. plant ammonia leak

THEODORE, Ala. — Seven people remained hospitalized in intensive care Tuesday as federal investigators sought the cause of an ammonia leak a day earlier in a plant that freezes chickens.

An attorney for Millard Refrigerated Services, which operates the coastal Alabama plant, said there had been no similar problems at the site before.

About 130 people sought medical attention after a vapor cloud released by the spill caused respiratory problems for those in the area, authorities said. The plant is located near an industrial canal alongside Mobile Bay.

Four of those in intensive care were at the University of South Alabama Medical Center and three more were at another medical center. Officials said none appeared to have life-threatening injuries but details of their conditions weren’t released.

Theodore is a major staging area for Gulf oil spill recovery workers south of Mobile and many of those taken to hospitals were working on disaster response, authorities said.

Ammonia is a suffocating gas that can be fatal in high concentrations and is particularly dangerous because its vapors are heavier than air and hug the ground, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Along with breathing difficulties, symptoms can include throat irritation, burns and blisters.

Doug Anderson, an attorney for Millard, said the facility hadn’t had problems with handling ammonia before.

“This is the first time,” he said.

Millard has paid $11,375 in fines for nine workplace safety violations at the plant since 2001, but none appeared to involve the accidental release of chemicals, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration records.

Most recently, in 2007, the Omaha, Neb.-based company paid a $5,100 fine after a worker was hurt in a machinery accident, records show.

On Tuesday, federal officials were at the plant trying to determine the cause of the leak.

“OSHA has opened an investigation,” said OSHA spokesman Michael D’Aquino in Atlanta.

Capt. Shaun Hicks of the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department said private contractors had been called to remove the remaining liquid ammonia that spilled inside the plant and to monitor for air quality problems.

“Outside, the air is perfect,” Hicks said Tuesday.

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