Local News

Safety board can't investigate ammonia leak

Posted June 22, 2009

— The U.S. Chemical Safety Board doesn't have the resources to investigate a weekend ammonia leak at a Robeson County chicken processing plant that killed one worker.

Authorities said a high-pressure line appears to have ruptured Saturday morning at Mountaire Farms, 17269 N.C. Highway 71, in Lumber Bridge. As many as 40 workers evacuated the building as the rupture released anhydrous ammonia gas, which causes burning and swelling of the air passages in the nose, throat and lungs.

Chicken truck pulls into Mountaire Farms plant in Robeson County Chicken plant back in operation after fatality

Mechanic Clifton Swain, 49, of Fayetteville, died in the accident, authorities said. Four other workers, whose identities haven't been released, were taken to hospitals.

One worker remained in critical condition Monday in the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Another victim was hospitalized at Southeast Regional Hospital in Lumberton, but a condition update wasn't available.

Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the Chemical Safety Board, said the agency, which investigates chemical accidents nationwide and develops recommendations to improve workplace safety, has 20 investigators to cover the entire country. The CSB already has 10 or 11 open investigations, including the June 9 explosion at the ConAgra Foods plant in Garner, he said.

Investigators have said a natural gas leak inside the ConAgra plant likely caused the explosion, which killed three and injured dozens. Four CSB investigators from the agency's Denver office have been assigned to the case and are expected to be in Garner for several weeks, which leaves nobody available to look into the Mountaire ammonia leak, Horowitz said.

Officials would like to investigate the Mountaire Farms incident, Horowitz said, but agents usually can't do so effectively if too much time elapses between the incident and the start of the investigation.

The CSB gets about 1,000 requests for investigations each year, and officials have to screen for the most serious ones to allocate their resources properly, he said.

Workers return to plant

Mountaire Farms reopened the plant Monday, saying authorities had inspected the plant and declared it safe. The plant employs about 2,500 people, and Millsboro, Del.-based Mountaire Farms said it planned to hold an internal employee meeting Monday and provide grief counselors for workers.

"Everybody's spirits are kind of down because they knew the guy that got killed," employee Reggie Richardson said.

"We have to (get back to work)," employee Dock Caldwell said. "Everybody's a little nervous, but we try to do the best we can."

Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey said a preliminary investigation showed the ammonia leak was accidental. Employees were replacing an inner sleeve on a machine used to process chicken when the ammonia line ruptured.

A spokesman for the state Department of Labor said determining what caused the leak could take three to six months. The State Bureau of Investigation, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are assisting in the investigation.

Since 2005, state and federal regulators have cited the plant for 19 workplace safety violations, including 15 in an inspection report dated April 21. Fines totaled $19,600.

Nine of those violations were labeled serious, and some involved standards for controlling hazardous energy and guarding floor and wall openings. Those areas could have something to do with ventilation. Other violations involved noise and sanitation standards.

"We take all OSHA regulations seriously, and our priority is to meet or exceed every workplace safety standard or guideline," Mountaire Farms spokesperson Chris Shigas said in a statement. "We have been working closely with OSHA to respond to the issues noted in the 2009 report. Our policy is to cooperate with regulators and work in conjunction with them to provide the safest workplace possible for our employees."

Workers said they had a hard time getting information from company officials about Saturday's incident.

"We have some employees that feel kind of upset about what happened and want to know more about it, but (managers are) not giving out information,” Caldwell said.

“It’s been hush-hush,” Richardson said. “They don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.”


This story is closed for comments.

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  • Bendal1 Jun 23, 2009


    The CSB exists specifically to investigate chemical accidents; they've got expertise that OSHA may not have when it comes to these kinds of incidents. That's why they're there, in fact, and it doesn't surprise me that they no longer have the resources to investigate every incident. That's what you get when the bed partner of Big Business, the Republicans, have 8 years in the White House to make sure regulatory agencies are gutted and defunded.

  • tamiya_stars Jun 22, 2009

    uummm, The Department of Labor (OSHA) is the agency that has jurisdiction over workplace fatality investigations and you can bet they are on site investigating it. Whether or not the CSB investigates it as well is irrelevant.

    p.s. The purpose of the ammonia in the plant is that it is used as a refrigerant. Almost ever single poultry or pork processing plant in the entire country has a equivalent system.

  • Trabman_san Jun 22, 2009

    Could it possibly be that the MAJORITY of employees are illegals?

    Ding Ding Ding! We have a winner!

    And for those of you who do not know, Ammonia is used once the chicks hatch to kill parasites and it make the chicks nice and yellow.

  • EverythingTicksMeOff Jun 22, 2009

    Wow. This is stunning. This is the equivalent of the NTSB saying they can't investigate a plane crash because they are too busy. The whole point of these investigations is to see if there was negligence AND to see what happened in case it was preventable. Getting this information out could prevent other similar accidents. But to say you can't investigate a FATAL accident is irresponsible. They should find an investigator from another region and bring him in.

  • RainierBeer Jun 22, 2009

    I see a need for stimulus money...

  • Bendal1 Jun 22, 2009


    If you think in those last 2 years the Democrats were able to completely undo every bit of mischief Bush & Co. did with respect to defunding regulators and inspectors, you've deluded yourself. All it takes is appointing some directors who are buddy-buddy with Big Business and don't want to upset them too much, and all of a sudden money gets moved out of "inspection" and into categories where it doesn't help at all. Directives get sent down making the justifications for inspections more complicated, and then they can always just veto the recommendations before they're released.

    All of this is going to take a lot of time to undo, and those last two years of "Democrat controlled Congress" were also involving lots of fighting with the Republicans, who controlled the Senate anyway (nullifying any attempts to increase regulatory spending).

  • See Chart Jun 22, 2009

    Sort of like NYC not having too many"Large
    Crane Inspectors"seemingly on purpose to allow industry
    to get away with well,murder.
    What you do not see you do not know.

  • scientistjo Jun 22, 2009

    These are the types of services you pay for with your taxes. You can't be outraged at both this AND taxes.

  • gr Jun 22, 2009

    Their identities might have been released due to people's PRIVACY you know. I dont know that I would necessarily want my name and info released in such a situation.

  • time4real Jun 22, 2009

    sue them! that's garbage!! hold them accountable!