December 5, 2012

Workers return to Dole plant after ammonia leak

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

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

The plant, which employees close to 1,000 people over a number of 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 was an estimate that was given in the midst of the situation. There was minimal damage and crews are working to repair the issues, he said. Employees are back at work as usual.

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.

Cal Fire Capt. Jeremy Rahn said the immediate area where the leak happened has been closed off, until repairs can be made.

The leak happened 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.

A total of 175 employees at the plant were evacuated after the leak, classified as an inhalation hazard, was reported shortly after 6:30 p.m.

A 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 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., said Rahn.

Atwater 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."

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

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