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Dressed in hazardous material suits, Decatur firefighters Casey Fogg, left, and Scott Norwood undergo decontamination in front of Milk Products of Alabama on Sunday after a chemical spill.
DAILY Photo by John Godbey
Dressed in hazardous material suits, Decatur firefighters Casey Fogg, left, and Scott Norwood undergo decontamination in front of Milk Products of Alabama on Sunday after a chemical spill.

4 hurt in Athens, Decatur ammonia spills

By Chris Paschenko
DAILY Staff Writer

cpaschenko@decaturdaily.com 340-2442

Noxious fumes scrambled hazardous-material units Sunday and injured four people at separate anhydrous ammonia spills in Athens and Decatur, prompting evacuations of residences and stores.

Authorities determined a 12:18 a.m. leak at Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant in Athens was no accident, finding a damaged valve after an apparent attempt to steal ammonia.

In Decatur's incident, firefighters said heat and pressure in a line connecting two ammonia tanks failed about 5:45 p.m., causing an accidental ammonia leak at Milk Products of Alabama.

Two Decatur police officers, Terry Johnson and Lee Hogan, who directed traffic away from Sixth Avenue Southeast and evacuated the Decatur Shopping Center and nearby businesses, complained of burning eyes and difficulty breathing.

Decatur police Sgt. Randy Cavnar said both officers went to Decatur General Hospital for treatment of symptoms that weren't life-threatening.

Decatur Fire Battalion Chief Russell Johnson said two teams of firefighters dressed in hazardous-material suits secured the leaking tanks about 7:20 p.m.

"The ammonia boils at negative 28 degrees," Johnson said. "Due to the heat today, the pressure built up and the expansion blew the pop-off valve, spilling a very, very small quantity."

Plant workers said that no employees at the milk-shipping business suffered injuries and that the plant should resume a normal schedule today.

Decatur officers resumed traffic flow between 14th and 11th streets about 7:45.

Athens evacuation

A security guard at Pilgrim's Pride on Pryor Street reported a fire in the plant's control room at 12:18 a.m., but 911 dispatchers quickly alerted police and firefighters that the suspected cloud was not smoke but anhydrous ammonia leaking from a tank.

Athens police and firefighters arrived in the dark at 12:21, finding an ammonia cloud rising above the tree line. They evacuated six homes and blocked city streets within a half-mile of the plant, police Lt. Floyd Johnson said.

"A fireman banged on my back door, and I couldn't breathe," Pat Alexander said. "It scared me to death. I came out the back door, and it just took my breath."

Alexander said she fetched her dog, Gracie, and called her neighbors Rick and Carol McCarver to warn them.

"It was 12:30, and I wondered what she's calling for," Carol McCarver said. "Then I saw the (emergency) lights, and I knew something was up. I grabbed my kids and tried to cover their mouth. I couldn't breathe."

Alexander, the McCarvers and other residents retreated to a hilltop at Pryor and Thomas streets.

Danny Southard, Athens assistant fire chief, said anhydrous ammonia is heavier than air and a skin, eye and lung irritant. A light breeze caused the chemical to pool in low areas south of the plant.

"There were two minor injuries, complaining of eye irritation," Southard said, "and they were treated at the scene by Athens ambulances. There are no other injuries that we know of related to this."

Criminal tampering?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, anhydrous ammonia is used as an agriculture fertilizer, an industrial refrigerant and a precursor chemical to make methamphetamine.

Anhydrous ammonia is a health hazard and can lead to respiratory injuries, including death, if inhaled in a large quantity. The chemical is also corrosive and can burn the skin and eyes, according to the EPA.

Only a small amount of anhydrous ammonia is needed to produce methamphetamine, a widely used and highly addictive drug. Wholesale theft from storage tanks has led to frequent chemical releases throughout the country.

Early estimates of Sunday's release in Athens calculated about 100 pounds of anhydrous ammonia escaped from a 4,500- to 6,000-pound tank, firefighters speculated.

"The valve on the tank had been tampered with," Floyd Johnson said. Police are investigating.

Although police and firefighters stopped short of listing Sunday's incident as a meth-related theft, Southard said, "We suspect somebody out there has facial and hand burns."

Police contacted hospitals, and none reported seeing burn patients early Sunday, Southard said.

Firefighters used their oxygen tanks to isolate the leaking tank and shut down ammonia pumps.

Some residents returned to their homes shortly after 3 a.m., while others spent the morning with relatives.

Trace amounts

Trace amounts of the gas remained in the area as police and firefighters cleared from the plant and opened all streets about 3:45.

According to the company's Web site, Pilgrim's Pride is the second-largest poultry company in the United States and Mexico, with $5.4 billion in net sales in 2004.

Ray Atkinson, a Pilgrim's Pride spokesman, said the Athens plant processes fresh chicken and operates a feed mill and hatchery.

"We do not expect it to disrupt our work schedule," Atkinson said. "There were no injuries at the plant, and we are cooperating fully with the investigation."

Athens police asked anyone with information on the incident to call 233-8700.

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