The uncontrolled release of the lethal gas happened Monday at Millard Refrigerated Services, a warehouse and distribution center 15 miles south of Mobile. A white plume of gas rose over the area accompanied by a noxious smell.
Today four people remain hospitalized, with one still in intensive care.
Company managers evacuated 74 employees and residents within a one-mile radius of the facility were forced to take shelter for several hours.
Workers at Millard Refrigerated Services closed a valve and stopped the ammonia leak within 15 minutes, but the company is being criticized for taking 20 minutes to call 911.
An assessment team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is on its way to the scene. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the incident, and so is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The town of Theodore, located near Mobile Bay, has been in the public eye over the past few months as the site of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife oiled bird rehabilitation center cleaning victims of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Boom used to contain the oil washing near shore has been set, decontaminated and repaired at Theodore.
Millard Refrigerated Services, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, is the second largest refrigerated warehouse and distribution company in the United States.
Anhydrous ammonia is one of the most commonly used commercial refrigerants; it is a colorless, flammable, toxic gas. For humans, high exposure levels can result in suffocation as well as severe injuries to eyes, lungs and the digestive system.
Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said, "We are seeing too many ammonia releases in our daily incident reviews. Though many are small releases, a high consequence accident that causes multiple injuries to members of the public is a serious one that warrants our examination. Our team will be examining the events that led to the release and ways that the community can be better protected in the future."
The CSB says that last year there were four high consequence incidents involving the release of anhydrous ammonia which led to a total of six fatalities.
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