At least 130 people were sent to the emergency room after an ammonia leak at an Alabama chicken refrigeration plant that Food Safety News reported on last week.  The plant is located on the Theodore Industrial Canal in Theodore, a port community near Mobile.  The leak prompted road closures and the evacuation of workers and local residents.

Between 200 and 300 gallons of ammonia, a component of refrigeration systems, were reportedly released from the leaking tank. Witnesses described a huge plume of white gas billowing from the building.

The incident was reported to the fire department at 9:26 a.m. but the local evacuation alarm didn’t sound until 10:20 a.m.  Warning messages later broadcast by local TV and radio stations directed people within a one-mile radius to stay inside with the air conditioning turned off until the early afternoon.

A nearby elementary school had to keep students indoors without air conditioning to protect them from the harmful gas.  Some people sickened by the release were workers at one of BP’s oil spill cleanup sites.

The poultry plant, Millard Refrigeration Services,  handles up to 2.5 million pounds of chicken each day.  Millard is the second largest refrigeration and distribution company in the United States with more than 30 sites.

The company exports poultry to Russia and a number of former Soviet states.  According to its Website, the company shipped more than 750 million frozen chicken leg quarters from the $60 million Alabama facility in 2007.

Two ships were reportedly docked at the plant at the time of the incident.  Chicken stored on loading docks was exposed to the ammonia and eventually discarded.  Other chicken inside the plant during the evacuation registered at temperatures too high.  Officials ordered the destruction of both batches.

An Alabama newspaper reported that officials were not immediately able to determine how much meat was contaminated because they could not access the three-story cooler where the leak occurred until the high concentration of ammonia dissipated.  Investigators were able to examine poultry in four other coolers and found it to be safe and ready for export.

Those sickened by the ammonia were sent to an impromptu aid tent at a nearby Shell gas station.  The 130 individuals afflicted with the worst symptoms were sent on to hospital emergency rooms.

Ammonia poisoning is extremely serious and can be contracted through air, touch and consumption of contaminated products (such as chicken).  Symptoms include itching and burning of eyes, nose and throat; chest pain; difficulty breathing; lip swelling; a rapid, weak pulse; fever; an altered mental state; severe stomach pain; vomiting; and a bluish color to lips and finger nails.

An Alabama news site reported that the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration fined the Millard Refrigerated Services’s Theodore facility $9,675 following a failed 2007 inspection. The site’s violations included lack of control of hazardous chemicals and failure to secure machinery.  OSHA decreased the fine to $5,100 after the company petitioned for a reduction through OSHA’s informal settlement process.

Records show that other Millard facilities have been cited for safety violations 19 times in the last 10 years.  At least four of those instances included what OSHA said were violations of hazardous chemicals or hazardous waste handling.  

Investigators from OHSA have yet to determine the cause of the leak.  Officials said the company will probably face fines from both OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some trade experts fear this leak may further complicate poultry export relations with Russia, a trade relationship that has been under increased pressure in the last few months, in part because of the U.S. practice of treating chicken with chlorine as an anti-microbial.
It is unclear whether the ships docked at the time of the leak were bound for Russian ports.