Could a blast of ammonia harm the University campus?

HBy Patrick Delaney How could a potato processing plant approximately five blocks from the University cause a dangerous gas to reach campus?

The answer to the question is found in a government-mandated risk management report issued by the Northern Star Co., located at 3171 5th St. S.E.

According to the report, dangerous amounts of anhydrous ammonia could reach the West Bank, Coffman Union and residential areas if a core ruptured at the nearby plant.

There is no real cause for concern however, said Northern Star plant manager Chuck Berry. A blast of that caliber is not likely to occur given the scenario’s circumstantial nature and the safety precautions the plant takes.

A risk management plan is a report factories are required to file publicly so surrounding buildings and residences are aware of the dangers are in case of accidents. According to a plan filed by Northern Star, a rupture in the factory’s largest refrigeration tank would spread toxic amounts of ammonia up to a 1.2 mile radius.

If this type of chemical accident did occur, people in the area would hear a loud explosion followed by a cloud of frosty, stinky air. Next, they would feel a stinging sensation in their armpits and groin.

Ammonia is the main concern in the case of an accident at Northern Star. If the ammonia were released in large quantities, surrounding buildings and residences would have to be evacuated. According to Berry, however, ammonia is the safest and most widely used refrigerant across the country in food processing.

In the event of a smaller release of ammonia in the plant, people in the surrounding area would smell it immediately.

“Ammonia is stinky, stinky stuff,” Berry said.

“A more dangerous amount of ammonia starts to cause stinging in the groin and armpits, followed by difficulty breathing,” Berry said. Ammonia in very high amounts can corrode the body and eventually lead to suffocation.

For this reason, the Northern Star plant is most concerned with small, accidental releases of ammonia through valves. But according to the risk management plan for Northern Star, this type of accident would still only spread to a 0.01 mile radius area over a 15-minute period.

Because of ammonia’s strong smell, plant workers would notice if a valve failed passively before it failed catastrophically, Barry said, meaning that the emergency response team would turn off the system as it bends and before it breaks.

All Northern Star employees – including the receptionist – are trained how to respond to such situations.

“People are afraid of things they don’t understand,” Berry said. “Since so many people have seen the movies with radiation, chemicals and attacking monsters, when they see our emergency response people out there with bio-suits that look like radiation suits they say ‘Oh, radiation; should I be covering myself up?’ “

Patrick Delaney is a freelance writer.

The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]