State, feds probe Smithfield leak

TAR HEEL - State and federal inspectors are investigating an ammonia leak in late May at the Smithfield Packing Co. hog processing plant in Bladen County.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is investigating the leak that sent eight people to hospitals, said Dolores Quesenberry, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Labor.

A portion of the plant where 400 employees work was evacuated May 31 after the leak was detected about 8:40 p.m., said Jeff Gough, senior vice president of human resources and safety for Smithfield Foods, after the incident. Plant officials believed a rupture in a coil on a cooling unit caused the leak, he said at the time.

The ammonia release happened in the kill floor area of the plant, Quesenberry said. The plant was closed for two to three hours while the maintenance crews repaired the leak.

Eight employees were taken by ambulance to three area hospitals as a precaution, Quesenberry said. Seven of those workers, who had complained of respiratory issues and general sickness, were treated at hospitals and released the same evening.

The other worker, employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was hospitalized. That worker's status was unavailable Thursday.

Gough and plant spokesman Jamie Pope could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Bradley Kinlaw, Bladen County's fire marshal and emergency services director, said the leak was contained by the time his crews arrived.

The Occupational Safety and Health Division of the N.C. Department of Labor opened its investigation June 1, Quesenberry said. The division investigates accidents related to the unexpected release of highly hazardous chemicals.

"It will probably be another month or so before this one closes," she said.

Quesenberry declined to say what inspectors believe caused the leak.

"That's the whole point of the investigation," she said.

"Every investigation is different," she said. "If violations are found, they can be cited."