TAR HEEL —The world’s largest pork processing plant remains closed today after an ammonia leak forced the evacuation of about 2,400 Smithfield Packing employees on Tuesday afternoon.
The leak occurred when a 300,000-gallon water tank collapsed outside the plant, pushing some equipment into a backup ammonia tank, according to Dennis Pittman, Smithfield’s director of Communications.
“The water tank rupturing is what set everything into motion but we don’t know yet what caused that to happen,” Pittman said.
Pittman said there will be no production at the plant today as workers clean up the plant, and Thursday’s schedule will be determined tonight.
According to Pittman, the tank is used to hold ammonia when work is being done on the plant’s refrigeration system.
After evacuating Tuesday afternoon, many employees gathered at the Minuteman convenience store and gas station at the corner of N.C. 87 and Tar Heel Ferry Road. According to one, the water tank collapsed and hit a car and truck before striking the ammonia tank.
“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, which is about a half mile away, had been set up as a command center and was where Smithfield employees were directed to go.
According to The Fayetteville Observer, workers heard a loud noise at about 11 a.m. and the power and water went out shortly afterward. Some said they felt sick and others had passed out, the paper reported. As many as 40 employees needed medical treatment.
Dr. Michael Zappa, the assistant chief medical officer for Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, told the Fayetteville paper that at least seven people were treated for respiratory distress and one was admitted. Zappa said a decontamination area was set up outside of the hospital’s Emergency Department.
Pittman said he was last updated on injuries Tuesday at about 6 p.m. and that two people were still at the hospital at the time.
Inhaling ammonia gas can cause coughing and irritation to the nose, respiratory tract, eyes and skin. Ammonia does have an odor but causes olfactory fatigue, meaning the ability to smell it is reduced following exposure.
“I think the good news is when this happened we were prepared and everybody got out in an orderly fashion,” Pittman said. “… It just shows that when you’re prepared you can handle these situations.”
Powell, however, said the safety of his fellow 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 said. “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.”
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 and the company’s second shift was cancelled.
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. on Tuesday and all lanes were reopened at 4 p.m.
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.