Ammonia leak sends Smithfield employees home

W. Curt Vincent and Erin Smith Staff writers

June 17, 2014

TAR HEEL — About 2,400 employees and some of the nearby residents of Smithfield Packing on N.C. 87 were evacuated shortly after noon on Tuesday when an ammonia line was cut.

According to an employee of Smithfield Packing who was standing with numerous other fellow employees at the Minuteman convenience store and gas station at the corner of N.C. 87 and Tar Heel Ferry Road, a water tank collapsed in the parking lot, hit a car and truck and severed the ammonia line.

“We could smell the ammonia as soon as we got outside and while we walked down (N.C. 87) to the school (Tar Heel Middle),” said Julius Powell. “It was pretty bad.”

The school had been set up as a command center and was where Smithfield employees were directed to go.

State Highway Patrol officers and Bladen County sheriff’s deputies had N.C. 87 closed in both directions and were diverting traffic to other routes, but a southbound lane was opened at about 2 p.m. and all lanes were reopened at 4 p.m.

According to information from the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, there were a few injuries reported, likely from the inhalation of ammonia.

According to Wikipedia, ammonia gas is used in refrigeration systems and to kill bacteria. Inhaling it can cause coughing and irritation to the nose, respiratory tract, eyes and skin. Ammonia does have an odor but also causes olfactory fatigue, meaning the ability to smell it is reduced following exposure.

Throughout the incident, Bladen County Emergency Management officials, as well as hazardous materials teams from the region, were working to get the situation under control. The leak was reportedly capped at about 12:30 p.m., but all of the employees were told not to return to work today and the company’s second shift was cancelled.

As of 4 p.m., Smithfield officials had not confirmed the cause of the leak.

“Smithfield Foods is working with local emergency officials to determine the cause of an apparent ammonia leak today at the company’s Tar Heel facility. Our main concern is for the safety of our employees and the community, and all employees have been evacuated,” said Director of Corporate Communications for Smithfield Foods Kathleen Kirkham in an email.

According to Powell, however, the safety of workers at Smithfield should be called into question.

“The federal inspectors need to come down here and really look things over,” he said. “They say it’s a safe place to work, but it’s not.

“They can’t get 5,000 workers out safely when we all have to go out one exit, like we did today,” Powell added. “If there was ever a serious threat to the facility, a bomb or something, there’s no way everyone could get out quickly and safely.”

Smithfield Foods, based in Virginia, is the world’s largest pork producer and Bladen County’s largest private employer with about 4,800 workers. The plant processes up to 34,000 hogs each day.