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Ammonia leak at GA Food Service sealed, called non deadly, after forcing evacuations near St. Petersburg's Carillon area

ST. PETERSBURG — Firefighters have left the scene of an early morning ammonia leak at a Carillon industrial park that was a disruption to traffic and scores of workers, but much less of a health hazard than was possible.

A faulty release valve on the cooling system of GA Food Service at 12200 32nd Court N began bleeding anhydrous ammonia before 5:30 a.m., prompting emergency responders to clear the building and forcing some evacuations south to 118th Avenue N.

Hazmat crews eventually located and contained the leak around 9:30 a.m. said Pinellas Park Fire Department spokesperson Suzanne Boisvert. Employees at some nearby businesses were allowed into their workplaces and normal traffic patterns are slowly resuming.

One person was been taken to a local hospital, complaining of "weakness and a sore throat," Boisvert said, and two were treated at the scene for throat scratchiness.

The leak was not considered deadly, Pinellas Fire Department Lt. Gary Berkheimer said, but hazmat crews discovered high levels in a few isolated areas. There was a strong smell in the well beyond the immediate area earlier and concentrations were elevated inside GA Food Service. Vapors did not dissipate well because of light wind conditions, Berkheimer said. Crews monitored the area and allowed those already inside buildings with air conditioning to stay unless conditions worsen, he said. Employees notified authorities of a problem after noticing a cloud of vapor early this morning.

According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, "ammonia is not, strictly speaking, a poison and repeated exposure to it produces no addictive effects on the human body. However, even in small concentrations in the air it can be extremely irritating to the eyes, throat and breathing passages."

Berkheimer said the GA Foods leak posed no immediate threat to life.

"It's not really deadly," Berkheimer said, "but it can cause breathing problems, itchy eyes, other problems."

Berkheimer said it is unclear whether the leaking ammonia at the plant was used for air conditioning or refrigeration. In an odd twist on the first day of hurricane season, one of GA Food Service's main businesses is preparing pre made meals for emergency services.

More than 20 units – including engines, trucks and hazmat crews – initially responded to form a contingent that grew to more than 40 units from Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Seminole and Largo, but the force is slowly scaling back.

Anhydrous ammonia refrigerant dangers, according to OSHA:

• In the lungs, liquid anhydrous ammonia causes destruction of delicate respiratory tissue. Exposure can lead to convulsive coughing, difficult or painful breathing, pulmonary congestion and even death.

• Skin damage depends upon the length and concentration of exposure and can range from mild irritation, to a darkened freeze-dry burn, to tissue destruction.

High concentrations in the air can also dissolve in the moisture of the skin or perspiration and result in a corrosive action on the skin and mucous membranes.

It is unclear if the leak impacted a colony of least terns, which roost on the roof of a Matter Brothers warehouse in an adjacent industrial complex. As many as 800 of the endangered birds — which prefer flat, white roofs — were said to congregate there, according to St. Petersburg Audubon Society volunteer Lorraine Margeson.