Butchertown packing plant evacuated after ammonia leak; all-clear issued

Posted by Mike Dever - email

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The JBS Swift plant in Butchertown was evacuated late Wednesday morning after reports of an anhydrous ammonia leak, but an all-clear alert was issued around 2:30 p.m.

Louisville Fire & Rescue and Metro HazMat teams responded to reports of a leak just before noon on March 23, and set up a command center at Story Avenue and Bickel.

Around 2 p.m., plant officials reported that the leak had been contained and that they were ventilating the plant so employees could enter and gather their items so they could leave for the day.

We're told the next shift will report for work based on the limitations of what they can do inside.

Two sirens sounded around 12:30, which is a signal for residents within a 1-mile radius to shelter-in-place - meaning staying indoors and shutting doors and windows and turning off any air handling devices. Those affected included Frankfort Avenue to Mellwood Avenue as well as Story Avenue to Campbell Street and River Road.

JCPS spokesman Ben Jackey says there are two schools near the plant: Breckenridge-Franklin at Lexington Road and Payne Street and Lincoln Elementary on Main Street. Jackey says they shut windows and doors and kept children indoors. There have been no reports of students becoming sick.

No injuries were reported, but one person was taken away in an ambulance after becoming sick. Hundreds of workers were gathered outside the plant while crews worked to safely clean up the chemical - a process that could take several hours.

The ammonia is used in refrigeration units at the packing plant to keep meat cold.

We're told a relatively small amount - about 80 pounds - of ammonia was leaked, and there was only a slight odor in the air immediately outside the plant.

Capt. Salvador Melendez with Louisville Fire & Rescue says the leak started in the engine room - and could have been much worse.

"We're getting estimates of 80 pounds, and that particular part of the system holds 25,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia," Melendez said. "So in comparison to what's held, it's a relatively small leak, however, you do not want to be exposed to it."

"There are two parts in the system, one of them is the liquid side, the other one is the vapor side," Melendez said. "And this occurred on the vapor side, which means it is a smaller amount that could be released."

It's up to JBS Swift officials to decide whether or not to reopen the plant today.

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