TAR HEEL — Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel is expected to reopen Friday morning, more than two days after an ammonia leak forced production to halt and about 2,400 employees to evacuate.
Company spokesman Dennis Pittman said this morning that the plant is still operating on auxiliary power after a 300,000- gallon water tank collapsed, knocking the plant’s transformers and an ammonia tank outside the plant.
“The plan is that we will have [the power] up by midday today and finish the cleaning of the plant and open for first-shift tomorrow morning,” Pittman said.
Pittman said the two tanks and the transformers are damaged, but there is no damage to the inside of the plant.
Workers are continuing to feed some hogs that were already on site at the time of the leak, but that none have been delivered since.
“There will be no deliveries until they’re sure they’re going to open in the morning,” Pittman said.
Following a loud noise and a power outage, employees were evacuated Tuesday at about 11 a.m. and directed to Tar Heel Middle School, about a half mile away on N.C. 87. The leak was capped at about 12:30 p.m.
Pittman said the ammonia tank is used to hold gas while work is being done on the plant’s refrigeration system.
Julius Powell, who works at the plant, said the smell of ammonia was strong.
“We could smell the ammonia as soon as we got outside and while we walked down to the school,” he said.
Christina Garrett commented on The Robesonian’s Facebook that many workers were experiencing chest pain and trouble breathing.
As many as 40 employees needed medical attention, mostly for exposure to the ammonia gas and to the day’s 97-degree heat. At least seven workers were taken from the plant by ambulance and one was admitted to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
Five Smithfield workers were hospitalized in 2012 when about 69 pounds of ammonia were released on an overhead catwalk, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The world’s largest pork producer and Bladen County’s largest private employer, Smithfield has a processing capacity of 34,000 hogs each day and employs about 4,800 people.