The Portland Fire Department spent about two hours clearing freon gas from the basement of Paul’s Food Center on Congress Street Wednesday morning.

The store was evacuated but has since reopened.

Firefighters were called to the store at 585 Congress St. in the city’s West End at 8:30 a.m. for a report of leaking gas. Firefighters found elevated levels of freon, which is used by grocery stores as a coolant.

One employee was exposed to the gas and reported a foul taste after breathing it, but he refused medical treatment and appeared to have no ill effects, said Deputy Fire Chief Terry Walsh.

The building was evacuated and a contractor was brought in to patch the leaking supply line.

Freon gas is harmful to breathe, potentially burning mucous membranes, but it is not a fire hazard, Walsh said. The gas is much heavier than air so it lingered in the basement and did not rise to the floors above Paul’s Food Center or neighboring businesses, he said.

Firefighters used fans to dissipate the gas out a rear loading dock doorway.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also sent staff to the scene, as did the Agriculture Department, which is in charge of determining whether any food was affected.

The incident closed Congress Street from Oak to High streets from 8:15 a.m. to just before 11 a.m.

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

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman