Ammonia leak causes evacuation

Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- This February 2011 photo shows St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Baton Rouge, which was evacuated by firefighters Thursday when an anhydrous ammonia leak was found at the Reddy Ice business near the school. Also included in the two-block evacuation were a few houses near the school. Show caption
Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- This February 2011 photo shows St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Baton Rouge, which was evacuated by firefighters Thursday when an anhydrous ammonia leak was found at the Reddy Ice business near the school. Also included in the two-block evacuation were a few houses near the school.

The Baton Rouge Fire Department’s hazardous material unit shut off an anhydrous ammonia leak Thursday at the Reddy Ice facility in Baton Rouge, a department spokesman said.

The leak was first reported at 3:16 p.m. and it was shut off about an hour later, Curt Monte said.

Firefighters arrived at 3:19 p.m. and evacuated St. Francis Xavier Catholic School at 1150 S. 12th St., and a few elderly residents living near the facility, Monte said.

Children and the elderly are more susceptible to the effects of ammonia, which can cause respiratory problems, Monte said.

Firefighters advised other residents to stay in their houses during the cleanup process. Baton Rouge police officers closed the roads in a two-block area near the business, located at 1140 Myrtle Street, Monte said.

The area was declared safe just after 9 p.m., Monte said.

The leak’s source was a stem from a valve on a tank, and the hazmat team closed the main valve to the system to stop the leak, Monte said.

It took the hazmat unit about 10 minutes to identify the source and about five minutes to shut it down, Monte said.

Melanie Verges, superintendent of the Diocese of Baton Rouge Catholic Schools, said the Rev. Edward Chiffriller, pastor of the parish who lives next to the school, smelled the ammonia and called the Fire Department.

The school was letting out for the day when firefighters ordered the evacuation. Children in after-school programs were hustled to the church’s parish office across the street from the school, Verges said.

Verges said there were no plans to cancel school Friday.

Joel Porter, who lives across South 12th Street from the church office, said he was not notified about the leak Thursday, but he thought something was wrong when his throat, nose and eyes began hurting.

He said a leak occurred a few years ago and authorities did not notify him of that leak, either.

“I don’t feel safe. Obviously they have a problem,” he said, adding he would like Reddy Ice to install a notification system in case of another leak.

On Aug. 14, 2007, an icemaker’s compressor at Reddy Ice shut down during power fluctuations in the area, and while the compressor shut down, the water supply pump continued to run, heating ammonia in the icemaker and activating the safety release valve, documents from the state Department of Environmental Quality show.

The safety release valve released less than 50 pounds of ammonia into water-filled diffusion tanks in the 2007 incident, confining the ammonia on-site, documents show.

Attempts to contact Reddy Ice officials Thursday night were unsuccessful.