Ammonia leak at Smithfield Tar Heel USA

A Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel was evacuated in the morning of 17 June because of an ammonia leak and some of the workers were transported for medical treatment.

Tuesday afternoon, Dennis Pittman with Smithfield said a hot water tank tilted over and hit he top valve of a reserve ammonia tank, which caused the leak. The company said the leak is now contained.

A portion of Highway 87 was closed because of the leak.

More than 2,400 employees were evacuated from the entire operation, Pittman said. One worker said the smell of ammonia "slapped you in the face." Another employee said she saw some of her co-workers passed out.

Eight people from the plant were transported to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville for breathing problems. Two people were taken to Bladen County Hospital and five were transported to Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton. Of the eight transported to Cape Fear, one was admitted for observation over night.

"It's an irritant to our lungs, specifically the breathing tubes. It can cause them to spasm or narrow, similar to what happens with a patient with asthma," Cape Fear Associate Chief Medical Officer Michael Zappa said, "In severe cases, this can persist and cause a chemical pneumonia."

In a statement obtained by WECT in Wilmington, Smithfield Foods said, "Our main concern is for the safety of our employees and the community, and all employees have been evacuated. We are also working with local authorities to secure the facility. We will have more details as information is made available."

Pittman said he did not know when the plant would reopen. He said management would make that decision Tuesday night or Wednesday morning once the plant was cleaned up completely.

Including the 2,400 employees who evacuated, the plant usually employs 4,500 to 5,000 people depending on the season Pittman said. It was unclear how or if people scheduled to work shifts on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning would be paid for the lost hours.

In a statement, Gov. Pat McCrory said, "The state emergency response team was on the scene shortly after the incident occurred to assist local first responders, and I called Mayor Roy Dew to offer any support his community may need. We're thankful there were no serious injuries at the plant, and we will continue to work with local authorities and the state Department of Labor during the upcoming investigation into this accident."

Similar incident in 2012

This is not the first time an ammonia leak at this plant sent workers to the hospital. In May of 2012, six workers inhaled ammonia fumes, according to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records. At least five of them were hospitalized.

Federal inspectors found 36 violations in a follow up visit that occurred about six months later. Smithfield was fine nearly $97,000 following the incident.