Perimeter of Atwater Dole plant deemed safe after ammonia leak

jsmith@mercedsun-star.comDecember 4, 2012 

— A large ammonia leak was reported at the Dole plant Tuesday night, prompting a sizable public safety response and evacuation of some residents.

Although radio traffic initially described the incident as an explosion, Cal Fire/Merced County Fire Department firefighters later clarified it was a leak. The leak happened after a heat exchanger on the roof of a processing building failed. The pressure overwhelmed the safety system and a 4-inch pipe broke, according to Cal Fire Capt. Jeremy Rahn.

Firefighters and law enforcement evacuated 175 employees from the plant, as the leak was classified as an inhalation hazard. Residents living a mile north of the incident were evacuated briefly from their homes and taken to the Atwater Community Center.

Cal Fire officials said Mother Nature assisted them in keeping the ammonia leak from being a more serious event. "Our saving grace was that the wind was blowing that way," said Cal Fire spokesman Gabriel Santos, pointing west. "Otherwise we’d be evacuating the city of Atwater."

The incident was reported at 6:38 p.m. after Dole employees at the 7916 Bellevue Rd. facility called 911. Rahn said about 100 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, used in processing frozen food, was released during the incident, before the leak was stopped.

At 8:35 p.m. officials deemed the perimeter of the Dole plant safe, and residents were allowed to return home. Rahn said 25 firefighters responded to the scene, in addition to the county Hazmat response team, two water tenders, three fire engines, three battalion chiefs and one rescue squad.

Also at the scene were seven Merced County Sheriff's deputies, Atwater police, and Riggs paramedics.

The leak is the second significant incident reported at the Dole plant in less than two years. In February 2011 a 1,000-square-foot fire burned a wall at the plant, part of the metal structure, insulation and I-beams.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsun-star.com.

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