OSHA Questions 45-Minute Delay in Warning of AL Ammonia Leak

Residents near an ammonia leak that sent 130 people to hospitals were not warned for at least 45 minutes after it was detected.

THEODORE, Ala. (AP) — Residents near an ammonia leak that sent 130 people to hospitals were not warned for at least 45 minutes after it was detected, a delay that some said Wednesday increased the risk to their safety.

Federal regulators are investigating the time lag, but the company and emergency officials said they acted as quickly as they could.

Millard Refrigerated Services said it first detected a leak at its plant on the Theodore Industrial Canal in coastal Alabama at 9:05 a.m. Monday, or 20 minutes before the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department said it was notified by a 911 call. By then, residents and workers along the canal had seen a white vapor cloud billow from the plant and some were running for their lives.

The director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency said it was about 9:50 a.m. — or 45 minutes after Millard said it first detected the problem — before the first siren went off. Ronnie Adair said his office learned of the problem at 9:35 a.m. and needed about 15 minutes to assess it, come up with an emergency message and notify broadcast media.

"I was pleased with our actions. We received the information and got it out as quickly as we could," said Adair.

Charles Adams, who lives beside the plant and escaped without injury, told The Associated Press Wednesday that an earlier warning would have given more people time to get away from the plant on the western side of Mobile Bay.

"The alarms finally went off, but there were a lot of people who were hurt before they did," said Adams, who escaped with his son and avoided breathing in the toxin.

At least nine people were treated in intensive care units, and one remained on Wednesday.

John Ponder, who owns nearby Deer River Seafood, was angry that neither the company nor emergency officials gave residents a prompt alert.

"There should have been an alarm that went off two minutes after that leak happened. Two minutes is too long," said Ponder, who inhaled ammonia and is having breathing problems despite getting away quickly in his truck.

Millard CFO Brian Vinchur said the plant was evacuated, the leak located and stopped, and authorities notified within 20 minutes. An alarm inside the plant warned workers of the leak, which was on the roof of a three-story freezer, he said. Placing another alarm outside the building could create problems, including false alerts, he said.

"We do feel like we responded timely and appropriately," Vinchur said in an interview from headquarters in Omaha, Neb. "There are steps you have to go through, and we believe we handled them ... in a timely manner."

The director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Mobile said there appeared to be a substantial period between the leak detection and the warnings.

"It's definitely something we'll look at," said Kurt Petermeyer. "That relates back to their emergency response protocol."

Petermeyer said ammonia spilled from a burst pipe inside the plant, but investigators hadn't determined the cause since they had yet to enter the area because of lingering ammonia fumes.

"This was a failure of a pipe, not a leak, and a pretty substantial failure," Petermeyer said.

Jim Bennett, the state commissioner of labor, said Wednesday inspectors were sent to look at the pressure vessels, which his agency regulates. He said the company does not have a record of violations in maintaining pressure vessels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which monitors safety in plants that process poultry, also has no record of previous safety problems at Millard Refrigerated Services, USDA spokesman Neil Gaffney said.

Ponder said fire trucks and medics were on the scene long before the warning siren went off.

"The whole other side of the river was ... just a fog. I didn't recognize it when it was right around me," said Ponder, who was taken to a hospital by ambulance and still has a scratchy throat. "I had my shirt in my mouth because you couldn't breathe. That (stuff) just about got me."