Simulated ammonia release tests emergency personnel, McCrum staff
Belfast — A large ammonia release the morning of Oct. 8 at Penobscot McCrum’s processing plant on Pierce Street left two employees unconscious and two others with serious burns on their hands.
Fortunately, the incident was part of an exercise simulating a scenario in which the facility experiences a large, quick release of anhydrous ammonia. During the scenario, four McCrum employees were caught near the ammonia system — two of whom were overwhelmed and rendered unconscious.
Anhydrous ammonia is a clear gas with a pungent smell that when concentrated in large quantities can be fatal. Typically, the gas can be detected between 25 parts per million and 50 parts per million. While the gas is irritating at those proportions, its most dangerous effects occur at levels greater than 100 parts per million.
One of the quirks of the gas is that it will seek out water, McCrum Compliance Manager Steven Craig said, even if the gas must move against the wind direction to do so. That’s why McCrum’s processing plant on the waterfront is both a blessing and a curse, Craig said.
On one hand, if an ammonia release occurred, the gas would be attracted to the nearby Passagassawakeag River. That scenario, however, presents a different problem. The ammonia dissolves readily in water, according to Centers for Disease Control, forming a corrosive, alkaline solution known as ammonium hydroxide.
“It is dangerous stuff,” Craig said of the ammonia.
During the course of the drill, which commenced at 9:30 a.m. with Craig calling state and national response centers to report the simulated release, members of the county’s DECON team carried the two "unconscious" McCrum employees out of the building to a nearby staging area where additional personnel prepared them to be taken to Waldo County General Hospital.
If ammonia did get released inside the plant, Craig said employees are trained to respond to such an incident and would attempt to rescue anyone in the area of the release.
After the exercise finished, all the participants offered feedback on the drill. Craig said the purpose of the drill was to test how prepared emergency personnel are able to respond to such a scenario.
"They did a great job," he said of the drill's participants.
Craig noted that a recently installed siren, which will sound in the event of an ammonia leak, will be tested the third Wednesday of the month at 1 p.m.