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Ammonia leak forces evacuation of Bladen pork plant

Posted June 17
Updated June 19

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— 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.

30 Comments

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  • DURHAMBULL Jun 17, 12:38 p.m.

    Yummmm, so they clean your meat with ammonia before you purchase it the store for consumption? Another reason to eat more veg and only local meats. I'm sure they only use safe levels (wink).

  • thelonious monk Jun 17, 12:48 p.m.

    Ammonia is used for refrigeration; not cleaning meat. Another reason to continue to eat delicious meat along with your veggies.

  • Super Hans Jun 17, 12:49 p.m.

    Disgusting.

    Save yourself AND the environment - go vegan!

  • DURHAMBULL Jun 17, 12:58 p.m.

    Ammonia is used for refrigeration; not cleaning meat. Another reason to continue to eat... View More

    — Posted by thelonious monk

    Ha,ha,ha! You wanna bet? The cheapest way for meat packing plants to guard against contamination is to treat the meat with ammonia before shipping it. They do this so they can save money on expensive sanitation practices during processing.

    Just saying......

  • Carrboro-resident Jun 17, 1:00 p.m.

    Ew. Hope the line workers get a break... I feel bad for the workers who may have to wait around in the heat today for the plant to be cleared so as not to lose any productivity. I used to eat meat just as much as the next person but the more I learned about the industry, the grosser it became (the books Eating Animals and Slaughterhouse, watching videos). Sadly even if the workers get a short break it won't end well for any pigs who hadn't been "processed" yet. Look up Esther the Wonder Pig - she'll change your life!

  • JennyB Jun 17, 1:02 p.m.

    It's Ammonia Hydroxide, which is used to kill bacteria...like ecoli. Ammonia Hydroxide is also naturally in our bodies. I'll keep eating my bacon. Save the plants, eat bacon.

  • Stuck in the snow Jun 17, 1:03 p.m.

    Ammonia leaks are no joke. No way anyone could work in that while it's burning your nose to breath.

  • Mon Account Jun 17, 1:12 p.m.

    Yummmm, so they clean your meat with ammonia before you purchase it the store for consumption?... View More

    — Posted by DURHAMBULL

    It is gross. If you can't go vegan, or even vegetarian, just cutting down on meat will have an impact. If everyone gave up one day per week to being vegetarian, we'd decrease our meat consumption (and side effects) by almost 15%. Or skip one meat meal a day... it's really not hard if you want to.

    You don't have to go granola, either! There are a ton of meatless meals, particularly faith-based ones, out there that are delicious!

  • mfarmer1 Jun 17, 1:30 p.m.

    this is the second leak at the plant in a few weeks.

  • iopsyc Jun 17, 1:51 p.m.

    Ammonia is used for refrigeration; not cleaning meat. Another reason to continue to eat... View More

    — Posted by thelonious monk

    Ammonia is commonly used in food processing. The FDA has considered it "Generally Recognized As Safe" for the past 40 years or so. Regardless of your position on the safety of ammonia, you need to recognize that it is commonly used.

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