February 26, 2010

Braving runaway toxic gas, crews safely halted leak

DAVID HENCH

— By

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Portland Lt. Mike Nixon uses a sensor to check ammonia levels behind the door leading to the room at Americold Logistics where a massive cooling unit fell from the ceiling. Steve Brezinski, an oil and hazardous waste specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, in yellow, is waiting to enter the room with Nixon, the first responders to investigate the spill. Photos by Portland Capt. Mike Sargent

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Ice encases one of the many valves used to regulate ammonia and salt water used in the cooling process at the massive Americold Logistics refrigerated warehouse where a large ammonia spill occured Friday. Photos by Portland Capt. Mike Sargent

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Like astronauts on an alien landscape, fire Capt. Mike Sargent and Lt. Mike Nixon moved slowly through the cavernous AmeriCold Logistics plant on Read Street, wearing oversized blue suits that protected them from deadly levels of ammonia gas.

They paused frequently, pulling their hands into their suits so they could wipe the condensation from the insides of their face shields. Their fingers were numbed by the cold even as they sweated.

The firefighters were the first people to go into the 150,000-square-foot building after what was described initially as an explosion that caused a major ammonia spill, at 11:20 a.m. Jan. 22. Eventually, the adjacent neighborhood was evacuated.

It was the first time in almost two decades that firefighters had moved Portland residents because of a chemical spill. It also was the most serious incident handled by Portland's 10-year-old hazardous-materials response team.

Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said the years of training paid off, with nobody getting hurt and minimal impact on the city.

''Those events may be five, 10, 15 years apart,'' he said. ''It's still a balance we maintain in our daily operations, to ensure we have the capacity to make not just building fire or medical calls, but also to respond to the potential chemical hazards that make us a thriving urban community.''

Portland firefighters have gone to the AmeriCold facility repeatedly for minor spills or false alarms. The call on Jan. 22 was different.

A maintenance worker heard a crash and saw a white cloud rising to the ceiling before he closed the door to the room where the company flash-freezes products. He then helped get the handful of warehouse workers out of the building and summoned help.

Firefighters responded cautiously.

While Nixon, Sargent and Maine Department of Environmental Protection specialist Stephen Brezinski made their way to the room where the system had ruptured, firefighters on the 40-member team and DEP responders interpreted the readings taken by sensors. Meanwhile, researchers outside learned everything they could about the hazards of ammonia.

''It's very toxic to breathe. It can kill you at very low levels,'' said Barbara Parker, the DEP's director of response services.

AmeriCold uses about 9,000 pounds of ammonia to cool its plant, where companies store frozen food and other goods before delivery. In the room where the system ruptured, the levels of the gas got as high as 7,000 parts per million.

''At 300 parts per million, it's considered immediate danger to life and health,'' Parker said. ''It is flammable at higher levels.''

Ammonia was leaking uncontrollably, and responders initially had no idea how to shut it off.

ANALYZING WHAT HAD HAPPENED

On their first trip inside, firefighters tried to determine what was leaking and how it might be stopped. Sargent snapped pictures with a digital camera protected in a plastic housing. The images would help them plan the next entry.

They learned later that a section of the cooling system -- a 20-foot-by-40-foot rectangle of 2-inch copper piping, 4 feet from top to bottom -- had ripped free from the ceiling and hit the floor with such force that it sounded like an explosion.

The first teams into the building couldn't get past large pallets of frozen goods to see the dislodged cooling system. The closest technicians authorized to work on the mammoth refrigeration system were coming from Massachusetts, two hours away.

Firefighters had to resist the urge to act swiftly in a hazardous-materials situation, said Capt. Keith Gautreau. Anything that could cause a spark might ignite the ammonia.

The lack of victims in the building allowed firefighters to proceed with caution.

For the next 24 hours, the only responders allowed into the building had to wear level-A hazardous-materials suits and breathe through self-contained air tanks, giving them 30 to 60 minutes inside, barely time to get to the leak and back out in the cumbersome suits.

WORKING TO HALT THE LEAK

Dozens of responders from the DEP, the Portland Fire Department and AmeriCold made trips into the building in search of valves to shut off the ammonia from tanks outside, and from other areas of the system.

An AmeriCold technician, wielding a pipe wrench from inside his suit, cranked shut a valve in the unlit basement until the handle snapped just before it was fully closed.

But the problem persisted.

The large volume of ammonia in the dislodged ceiling unit was mixing with saltwater that is piped through the building. When the unit crashed to the floor, it shook the building, cracking some water piping.

Eventually, technicians sealed off the system so ammonia levels were not increasing.

The DEP used its spark-resistant fans to force the contaminated air into the basement, where the company's vent fans exhausted it through the roof.

Remote sensors deployed by South Portland's hazardous materials specialists on Carlyle Street and near Cheverus High School showed no measurable release of ammonia there.

JOINT TRAINING PAYS OFF

Outside, decontamination crews washed off each team of responders, who then recuperated in nearby ambulances to get out of temperatures that ranged from zero to 6 degrees.

The suits worn into the facility will have to be discarded and replaced, as will the goods that were stored in the plant, officials said.

Four days after the incident, cleanup was under way and AmeriCold crews still were wearing level-B hazardous-materials suits and breathing apparatus to get into the plant and begin repairs.

LaMontagne, the fire chief, said the performance of the hazardous materials response teams and their coordination was a testament to years of joint training and practice.

''This was really the first event of significance,'' he said. ''Everyone ran on all cylinders.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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