Workers return to Dole plant after ammonia leak

December 5, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Workers returned to the Dole plant in the Atwater area after a large ammonia leak forced evacuations there Tuesday night. The plant is located at Bellevue and Vine.

Merced County's hazmat team worked until the early morning hours to make sure the ammonia that leaked from the Dole plant just outside of Atwater was no longer a threat.

Capt. Jeremy Rahn said, "We had air monitoring sensors that were out in the immediate area, as well as up to a mile north of where the plant was with the wind directions, monitoring the levels to make sure they were safe."

Firefighters first rushed to the scene after getting a 9-1-1 call from the plant just before seven Tuesday night. They learned a shut off valve to a heat exchanger on the roof of one of the processing buildings had failed. The pressure ruptured a connector.

Capt. Jeremy Rahn said, "Approximately 100 gallons of product was released through a 4inch line that broke."

Workers stopped the leak themselves and all 75 employees evacuated the facility. Firefighters and sheriff's deputies then started evacuating homes within a one mile radius to the north, including Sharon Lohman's. She says the smell of ammonia was overwhelming.

Lohman said, "I just couldn't breathe, so I thought I can't evacuate with 3 dogs and 2 foster animals, so I just went inside and shut the heater off and decided we'll see how long this goes."

Authorities lifted the evacuation order by 8:30, and Capt. Jeremy Rahn says only about 15 homes were impacted. But if the wind was blowing toward the city of Atwater, it could have affected thousands. That's why he's now encouraging everyone to sign up for Merced County's new emergency notification system.

Capt. Jeremy Rahn said, "We can notify everybody by cell phone, email, and text messages if there is an emergency in their general area."


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