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Ammonia leak at Pilgim's Pride facility sickens dozens

From Staff Reports
Aug. 24, 2012 at 10 p.m.


MOUNT PLEASANT - Nearly 800 workers were evacuated from a Pilgrim's Pride poultry processing plant Friday afternoon after a high-pressure line carrying anhydrous ammonia was ruptured.

About a dozen people were treated at Titus Regional Medical Center while another 80 workers were treated on the company parking lot by emergency crews. One person remained hospitalized Friday evening.

One plant employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said anhydrous ammonia was spraying from a line running along the ceiling of the facility. The gas is used in refrigeration systems at the plant.

"It looked like steam spewing out, but it wasn't steam. It was ammonia," the employee said. "It burned your lungs and your eyes - it hurt."

When the rupture occurred, people inside the plant began running for the exits.

"No one knew what to do," the employee said. "People were screaming and yelling for help."

Exposure to anhydrous ammonia, a toxic gas, can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. It also causes coughing and choking, depending on the amount a person inhales. Under heavy exposure in a confined location, exposure can be fatal.

"It was chaos," another worker said. "When we got outside people were puking. Everybody was puking."

A third employee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "They've got cameras all over that place. It will show what happened."

Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said no offsite impacts were reported or expected from the ammonia leak.

In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for JBS, the parent company of Pilgrim's Pride, said 781 people were evacuated.

The incident, which JBS said was caused when a contract worker ruptured the line carrying anhydrous ammonia, began at 2:22 p.m. The leak was stopped at 2:50 p.m., JBS and the environmental commission said. Workers returned to duty at 3:35 p.m., JBS said.

The amount of ammonia released was unknown, the company said.

Shannon Norfleet, spokeswoman for Titus Regional Medical Center, said nine plant employees were taken by ambulance from the plant to the hospital's emergency room. Another five arrived in private vehicles.

None of the workers suffered life-threatening injuries, Norfleet said.

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