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December 9, 2010

Minn. ammonia leak sends 55 to hospital; evacuates town

By Maricella Miranda and Julie Forster
The St. Paul Pioneer Press

RANDOLPH, Minn. — A smelly, white ammonia cloud — the size of a football field — floated into downtown Randolph on Wednesday morning, forcing hundreds to evacuate the rural city and sending 55 others to hospitals.

The anhydrous ammonia spilled just before 8 a.m. at River Country Co-op, a company in Randolph that sells fertilizer and crop inputs. The ammonia was being transferred from a semitrailer to a storage tank when a line ruptured, sending the ammonia into the air, said Dakota County sheriff's Chief Deputy Tim Leslie.

The chemical drifted southwest into Randolph, in the direction of the city's schools.

About 55 people "experienced a potential exposure to the cloud," the sheriff's office reported. They were taken to hospitals in Northfield, Cannon Falls, Hastings and Burnsville, said Dr. Aaron Burnett, emergency-room doctor at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Anhydrous ammonia can cause respiratory difficulties, Burnett said. But as of Wednesday afternoon, the patients' symptoms were not severe, Burnett said. And after a couple of hours, most were released from the hospital.

"That is very reassuring," Burnett said.

Their symptoms, which were not severe, included nausea, dizziness, headache and shortness of breath, said Fairview Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Amundson.

Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville took in 19 patients, including 18 children. They were all released by 1:30 p.m.

Of the 21 patients treated at Northfield Hospital, five were admitted and one required decontamination. Cannon Falls Medical Center expected most of the 19 people taken there would be released Wednesday.

Meanwhile, authorities allowed Randolph residents to return to their homes by 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Bob Rahman, a manager at River Country, said the company was receiving a load of ammonia when the wrong valve opened during repairs. "We shut down the releases as fast as it was noticed," he said. About 200 gallons of ammonia leaked from a truck, which was carrying 8,000 gallons. No employees were injured.

During the spill and evacuation, "I never left the site," Rahman said.

An ammonia leak is "very rare," he said. The company, which is headquartered in South St. Paul, had another leak at the Randolph site about 10 years ago while workers were transferring the product to a different vessel. But in the 40 years Rahman has worked in the industry, he has never experienced a leak to this extent, he said.

"It's just an unfortunate incident," Rahman said. "Thankfully, it wasn't any worse than it was."

When workers noticed the leak, they immediately called 911, Rahman said. Following state protocol, the company then called the state Department of Agriculture and the National Response Center. Those organizations told the necessary local agencies that decided to evacuate the city.

"We did everything we were supposed to do to alleviate the severity of our situation," Rahman said.

Randolph residents and those living within a mile of the spill were alerted by phone, Leslie said. Workers also went door-to-door to notify nearby residents.

Randolph has a population of about 300 and is about 30 miles south of St. Paul. Randolph Public Schools, which serves about 600 students in preschool through 12th grade, is blocks away from the plant.

Superintendent Michael Kelley said officials locked down the school complex for about five minutes before evacuating students. They initially walked to the Randolph fire department, but the building was too close to the spill, Kelley said.

School officials then organized a bus to take students to St. Mark's Lutheran Church in north Randolph. But during the evacuation, the wind apparently shifted. After students told staff they were feeling sick, the paramedics took them to local hospitals for possible exposure, Leslie said.

Michaela Olson, 12, who was taken to Cannon Falls Medical Center, said she began to feel sick when she got on the bus.

"It smelled really bad. It was like a cloud of white stuff — it looked like fog. A couple of my friends were crying. It was hard to breathe, and my stomach was all bad."

Olson also felt tightness in her stomach and chest, she said. The doctor gave her a nebulizer and prednisone, which is used to treat inflammatory diseases, such as severe asthma and allergies, and released her from the hospital after about two hours. Her mother, Kary Schablitsky of Hampton, left work early to pick her up.

"I guess I didn't even know about the plant until now," Schablitsky said. "I guess I am a little worried because it could have been a lot worse."

Mark Schafer, a father of 7-year-old twins in Randolph schools, left work to pick up his sons after the spill. Mason and Kaden Schafer are in different classes, so they ended up going to different hospitals in Northfield and Cannon Falls, he said.

"I smelled something, and then I got sick," Mason said. "It smelled like pig poop."

But Kaden said it smelled like gas. The boys suffered from headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and nausea, they said.

"I was scared about the smelly stuff," Mason said.

Students who did not experience possible exposure were allowed to leave the church with their parents.

School was canceled for the rest of the day. It was unclear Wednesday night whether classes would resume today.

The Minnesota Occupational Health and Safety Administration is reviewing the leak, officials said. River Country does not have safety violations on record.

The Randolph site is part of River Country's four locations that make up the company's agronomy division and sells products for farmers, such as dry and liquid fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia, crop-protection products and seed lines. Anhydrous ammonia is part of a fertilizer product that farmers apply to their fields.

A truck often transports fertilizer ammonia from the site of production to terminals, or directly to dealers. To make it easy to handle, ammonia is kept as a liquid under pressure in specially designed bulk tanks, according to the state Agriculture Department.

When anhydrous ammonia gas or liquid comes into contact with the human body, it can cause dehydration as it extracts water from body tissue; caustic burning as it forms ammonium hydroxide, which can chemically burn tissue; or freezing as it pulls heat away from body tissue.

Said River Country's Rahman: "There's always a concern when you're handling hazardous substances. That's why there's all these precautions. ... We will probably review some procedures due to this incident."

This leak comes more than a year after a deadly leak in Rosemount. The state Occupational Health and Safety Administration cited a trucking company, High Pressure Transports of Oklahoma, after a toxic ammonia leak killed two truck drivers in November 2009 at the CF Industries terminal in Rosemount.

Copyright 2010 St. Paul Pioneer Press

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