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Emergency Team Called In to Control Ammonia Leak

Release Date: 3/22/1999
Contact Information: Lynn Campbell Wingert, (215) 814-3117

Bedford, VA - An emergency team from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has contained the leak of potentially deadly ammonia gas inside a Virginia meat packing plant.  Refrigeration mechanics are working to stem the flow of gas, now in its fourth day.

Representatives from the plant, owned by Professional Food Services, Inc., reported the leak to the EPA on Friday, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Services requested EPA assistance on Saturday.  A team was dispatched that day.

Due to the deterioration of the plant’s refrigeration system, EPA determined the leak could not be stopped and emergency measures were necessary to protect public health.  Inside the building, EPA measured levels of ammonia  at approximately 5,000 parts per million, 16 times higher than levels considered immediately dangerous to life.

The EPA quickly devised an ammonia collection device on-scene using a water fogging system to knock down high gas levels and reduce the danger.  Today, EPA is leading efforts to maintain safe air levels in other parts of the building, to control the continuing release of ammonia, and to prepare for venting high concentrations of gas this evening.  

Discussions between the Bedford School Board, Mayor, Fire Chief and EPA’s on-scene coordinator resulted in a unified decision to allow a nearby school to open today, while response teams performed their most critical operations during non-school hours.  At no time did the ammonia leak outside the building and threaten the community.

Ammonia is used by cold storage plants, breweries, dairies, meat processors and ice plants.  EPA estimates that approximately 400 facilities in the mid-Atlantic states use the chemical, and the number is rising due to increased demand for frozen foods.