Workers at Dole plant in Atwater return after gas leak

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comDecember 5, 2012 

— Workers returned to the Dole plant in Atwater on Wednesday, after a large ammonia leak that prompted evacuations of employees and some residents Tuesday evening.

Fire personnel left the plant around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, turning the plant back over to employees. Nobody was injured.

The plant, which employs close to 1,000 people in multiple shifts, was shut down for nearly one shift, said Marty Ordman, spokesman for Dole. Seventy-five employees were evacuated, he said.

Initially, it was reported that 175 employees had been evacuated, but Ordman said that estimate was given in the midst of the situation. There was minimal damage and crews are working to repair the issues, he said.

Employees at the plant receive training for these types of situations, Ordman said, and they were well-prepared. "It was handled well. Our people did what they were supposed to do," he said.

Area of leak closed off

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Jeremy Rahn said the immediate area where the leak happened has been closed off until repairs can be made. The leak occurred after a heat exchanger on the roof of a processing building failed. The pressure overwhelmed the safety system and the pipe broke, according to CalFire.

Employees at the plant were evacuated after the leak, classified as an inhalation hazard, was reported shortly after 6:30 p.m.

Some residents living a mile north of the incident were evacuated from their homes and taken to the Atwater Community Center for a short time. About 15 residents were notified to evacuate through the Merced County Emergency Notification System, and via personnel going door-to-door. But only about seven or eight people actually went to the community center, Rahn said.

Residents were able to return to their homes around 8:30 p.m., he added.

Atwater police Lt. Sam Joseph said the situation was handled well, and all of the agencies involved worked as a team. "Everybody was prepared to go and do whatever they needed to do," he said. "It was conducted very professionally. I don't think anybody was in harm's way."

Atwater Mayor Joan Faul said the responding agencies prevented a tragedy. "We are very fortunate to have the Cal Fire and their hazmat (team)," she said. "They did a wonderful job and really secured our community, and the county's community and the employees at Dole."

Notice system lauded

The Merced County Emergency Notification System contributed to Tuesday's success, Rahn said. The system notifies county residents during an emergency in a matter of minutes through their land-line phones, cell phones and e-mail.

It's important that residents register and update their contact information so they can be reached during an emergency event, Rahn said. It's free, and people can register by visiting the Merced County Web site.

Ron Rowe, director of county Public Health's division of Environmental Health, said environmental personnel were at the scene within minutes. The division has a full 24-hour on-call emergency response team for incidents such as Tuesday's.

Rowe said the side effects of inhaling ammonia can differ. It primarily can cause serious respiratory and skin problems.

Facilities monitored

Rowe said his division oversees a program that monitors every facility that has reportable limits of liquids, solids and compressed gas. Those facilities are required to register with the program, Rowe said.

There are currently 35 facilities in the county that are registered in the program. Under the program, environmental county officials review the facilities risk management and safety plans, as well as conduct at least one inspection every three years.

County environmental personnel have knowledge of each inventory of chemicals used and their location. Officials rank them based on their level of risk, given the chemicals they use, among other factors, he said.

"That allows us to respond to incidents like this in a very organized manner," he said.

To register for the Merced County Emergency Notification System, visit www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?nid=1922.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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