Officials have yet to determine what caused an ammonia leak this afternoon at the Allens, Inc., food processing plant on Stevens Street in Oakfield.
The leak prompted a call for residents to evacuate the south side of the village, including the baseball fields and park off Drake, which was filled with families and children on a warm, reasonably sunny Saturday.
Oakfield's big garage sale day was interrupted by the emergency, but some sellers tried to carry on even as fire police were keeping anyone from entering the cordoned area.
“Oakfield fire company responded very quickly," said Allen's plant manager Jeff Clark. "Genesee County (hazmat) came in. We were able to work together with their people and my people being able to go in, discover the (origin) and shut off the values to stop the leak."
The initial call came in at about 12:30 p.m. The leak was contained at about 2:30 p.m. (The Batavian's initial report is available here.)
Visibility in the room with the leak and the heat of the day made it especially challenging to get to the proper valve and shut off the ammonia, officials said.
One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and was transported by ground ambulance to an area hospital. He was doing fine an hour or so later, according to Oakfield Chief Sean Downing.
Clark said no Allens personnel were in the machine room when the leak occurred and no Allens personnel were hurt.
"We have hazmat drills several times per year," Clark said, explaining that employees know exactly the process for evacuating the plant when an alarm sounds.
The heat, one official said, causes the ammonia to stay close to the ground, making it more of a health hazard, and also making it more likely to settle in the basin where the community ball fields are located.
The wind, which was blowing at 15 to 20 mph, Downing said, spread the plume further than it might otherwise move, but also helped dissipate the gas more quickly.
Residents within a half-mile radius of the plant were notified of the leak using the county's reverse 9-1-1 system. They were advised to stay inside and close their windows.
The biggest concern, Downing said, was people with respiratory problems being exposed to the fumes. No medical issues were reported in the village related to the leak.
Emergency personnel were called in from Alabama, East Pembroke and Elba fire departments. The Monroe County hazmat team was dispatched to the scene to provide relief to the local hazmat teams. Shortly after the Monroe County team arrived, the leak was contained, so the team was sent into the village to test the air quality.
No heavy concentrations were found after the leak was contained, said Deputy Fire Coordinator James Bouton.
Ammonia is used at the plant in the refrigeration system.
“It’s part of our system to freeze the vegetables that are harvested locally," Clark said.
The system contains 38,000 lbs. of ammonia, Clark said, but not the entire system was effected by the leak. He could not say today how many pounds of ammonia escaped the plant.
The plant operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day. More than 200 people are employed there during peak season, and 65 employees were working today's day shift.
Allens, Inc., is based in Siloam Springs, Ark.
Allens acquired the Oakfield plant from Birdseye about three years ago, Clark said.
About four years ago, the plant had another ammonia leak. In that case, Clark said, a pressure valve gave way and the leak was contained in about 15 minutes.
Clark said he couldn't immediately estimate the financial loss to the company from the leak. He said all of the vegetables exposed to the ammonia will be thrown out.
Top inset: Jeff Clark; Bottom inset: Chief Sean Downing