Water tank explosion, not ammonia, caused Tuesday's evacuation at Smithfield Foods plant

sgilman@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2014 

The evacuation of the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel on Tuesday followed the explosion of a 300,000-gallon water tank and a resulting wall of water that knocked out the plant’s cooling system, according to a company spokesman.

The power was still out at the massive pork processing plant Wednesday, said spokesman Dennis Pittman. Some meat was spoiled by the rising temperatures Tuesday, but the company was able to bring in generators Tuesday night to keep meat cool.

Company officials had yet to determine by Wednesday afternoon when the plant would again be operational. They also do not know what caused the water tank to explode, Pittman said.

“Who knows if we’ll ever know why it erupted,” he said. “It had been inspected by the state and all that, but it just gave way and burst.”

After the explosion, workers followed procedures to evacuate the plant by crossing N.C. 87 to Tar Heel Middle School. Overdressed for working in refrigerator-like conditions, some workers suffered from heat stress, and 12 went to the hospital.

Pittman said that by Tuesday night all but two of the workers had been released.

The explosion was strong enough to knock transformers off their cement pedestals, Pittman said. With the transformers out, water can’t be pumped through the condensers to create cool air for the plant.

The explosion also knocked a generator into an ammonia tank, breaking off a valve that released ammonia, Pittman said. The tank was mostly empty, though some ammonia fumes did blow toward a few workers, Pittman said.

Early news reports suggested the injuries were the result of the ammonia leak, but Pittman said that most of the injuries were related to the heat. He said the company was pleased with how workers responded.

“Everyone knew what to do. Everyone did it,” he said. “No one was seriously injured. Everyone was accommodated for. We were able to get them to a safe place, get them food and water.”

Smithfield Foods is the country’s largest pork processor, and the slaughterhouse and processing plant on N.C. 87 in Tar Heel is the largest in the world.

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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