Janesville59°

Some treated for exposure to ammonia

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
April 18, 2009
— At least eight people went to local hospitals with burning eyes or breathing difficulties after an ammonia spill in a farm field just south of Afton on Friday afternoon.

Eighteen residences in the vicinity of the spill were evacuated for about an hour.


Dale Stevenson, who lives next door to the field where the anhydrous ammonia tank leaked, said he looked up to see a hose flailing in the air as the chemical spewed out.


Stevenson, who has hauled anhydrous ammonia in the past, had his wife pack their grandchildren in the car and drive away.


“It’s not something you want to breathe,” Stevenson said.


Stevenson said the operator acted immediately: “He was running around and trying to get people out of their houses as soon as he did it,” Stevenson said.


“It sounded like a jet motor, almost, going off and spraying a white cloud all over the place,” said Lt. Allen Cass of the Town of Beloit Fire Department, who was among the first responders on the scene.


Cass said the operator told firefighters the trailer holding the anhydrous tank broke free from the tractor, which led to the hose pulling free.


The accident occurred around 3:40 p.m. in the 5100 block of Afton Road, about halfway between Janesville and Beloit. The Janesville Fire Department sent its hazardous materials team.


Rock County sheriff’s deputies closed Afton Road and re-routed traffic. The scene was opened up around 5 p.m., Cass said.


The farm equipment belongs to local farmer Jerry Frei, Cass said. Stevenson said Frei leases land in the area.


Cass estimated the 1,000-gallon tank was about half full when the accident occurred.


Cass said the state agriculture department will assess the possible environmental damage.


Rock County 911 Dispatch Center reported getting calls from motorists who experienced symptoms from the gas. They were referred to hospitals in Janesville and Beloit.


Cass said three people were transported to Beloit Memorial Hospital with breathing difficulties, and he knew of five others who transported themselves for medical treatment. Cass did not know the severity of any injuries. None of the firefighters or other responders was injured.


The tank was nearly emptied by the time four firefighters from Janesville and town of Beloit approached the tank and closed the valve, Cass said.


Anhydrous ammonia is a common fertilizer on local farms. It is transported as a liquid under pressure but becomes a gas as soon as it is released. It is injected into the soil as a source of nitrogen.


Stevenson said he doesn’t blame the operator.


“Mistakes happen,” he said with a good-natured shrug.



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