Ammonia leak forces evacuation of Bladen pork plant
Posted June 17
Updated June 19
Tar Heel, N.C. — An ammonia leak forced more than 2,000 workers from a Bladen County slaughterhouse Tuesday and left at least eight people with minor injuries, authorities said.
The Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, the largest pork-processing plant in the world, was evacuated at about 11 a.m., and authorities closed about 5 miles of N.C. Highway 87 in both directions for several hours as hazmat teams responded to the leak.
"First, the lights went out, so we kept on working," plant worker Angela Hill said. "Then, our supervisor came, and he was hollering. He told us to come and get out of the building right now."
Dennis Pittman, a Smithfield spokesman, said a water heater tank collapsed at the rear of the plant, severing an ammonia line. It's unknown what caused the tank to fail.
"We're still cleaning up and looking back there to see if we can ascertain what started the chain of events," Pittman said.
A worker at the plant who asked not to be identified told WRAL News that the tank held 30,000 gallons, and when it collapsed, a rush of water more than 3 feet deep went out in all directions. The force of the water knocked around vehicles, compressors and other equipment.
"It looked like some kind of liquid was on the ground. I thought it was hot water, that a hot water pipe busted, but I come to find out later it was an ammonia leak," said Timothy Hayes, who was working nearby.
Pittman said the injured workers were taken to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville as a precaution. All suffered minor inhalation or heat-related injuries.
Other employees were taken by bus to Tar Heel Middle School to stay out of the midday heat and get something to drink.
Emergency crews had the ammonia line sealed by 12:30 p.m.
Within the next two hours, employees loaded up on buses again to retrieve their belongings from the plant and go home.
The company canceled the second shift at the plant Tuesday afternoon and evening. Wednesday's first and second shifts were also canceled, but a company spokeswoman said management and employees in the plant's shipping, maintenance, waste water and rendering departments should report on their regular schedules.
Archie Council has worked at the plant for 22 years, and he said he's never seen an evacuation of this magnitude.
"I'm just glad to see everybody got out and nobody was seriously hurt. That was the main thing," Council said.
The plant remained closed until Friday morning, when the same workers who were part of the evacuation returned to the job.
The Smithfield plant also had an ammonia leak in 2012. According to state records, a deactivated evaporator was mistakenly turned on, causing the chemical to leak. Six workers inhaled fumes, and five of them were hospitalized. The company paid more than $96,000 in penalties.
Pittman said the plant is a safe workplace.
"Things do happen, but if you're properly trained and properly prepared, which we were and we are – we're prepared to handle what happens," he said.
Federal regulators are investigating Tuesday's incident.