What caused the ammonia leak?

An ammonia leak that seems to have a faulty valve at the heart of the failure has touched off a cascade of consequences involving the Chicago Fire and Police departments, an engineering organization, county and state Attorney General offices, and the EPA.

It started as a leak of anhydrous ammonia on March 22 at a cold storage facility on Chicago’s South Side. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that four employees and a bystander inhaled ammonia fumes, were taken to hospitals for treatment, and then released. Four others complained of illness, the newspaper said. Police cordoned off a 16-block area for two hours during morning rush.

The building is owned by La Grou Cold Storage and is used for the distribution of food and related grocery products.

Detailed Investigation

On the same day of the incident, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) offered its assistance in the investigation of the leak.

“Although ASSE is not commenting directly on the cause of the accident, we are urging officials to do a detailed incident investigation procedure utilizing the tenets of system safety analysis, engineering, and facility operating procedures,” said ASSE president Frank Perry.

“We look forward to working with those investigating this accident, reviewing the results, offering our membership’s expertise, and distributing the information to all safety professionals.”

Operations halted

Six days later, Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan filed court documents to bar La Grou “from operating a failed refrigeration system that allegedly caused the release of an undetermined amount of anhydrous ammonia.”

Ryan’s office became involved at the prompting of the Illinois EPA and was joined in a two-count complaint by the Cook County’s State Attorney.

According to a statement from Ryan’s office, the three governmental agencies “allege that a failed valve in the system serving the company’s north shipping docks caused the release of the extremely hazardous substance in violation of several state and federal health, safety, and air pollution laws.”

The legal outcome:

  • Prevents the cold storage facility refrigeration equipment from being started up again until getting approval from the three governmental agencies;
  • Requires seven years of inspection and maintenance records to be turned over to the state government;
  • Requires that “the failed valve and any loose parts” be turned over to an engineering firm acceptable to the state for analysis; and
  • Gives the company six months to install and begin operating an ammonia leak-detection system.

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