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Officials blame leak, not explosion, for ammonia spill at Dole plant

December 5, 2012 |  6:03 am

Some Atwater residents were evacuated Tuesday evening after 100 gallons of ammonia leaked out of a Dole plant just outside the Central Valley city.

Officials originally thought the ammonia was released because of an explosion, but Cal Fire Capt. Jeremy Rahn told the Merced Sun-Star it was a leak. A rooftop heat exchanger failed, he said, and the resulting pressure "overwhelmed the safety system" and broke a 4-inch pipe.

About 175 employees were evacuated from the plant, the Sun-Star said, along with residents living a mile north of the plant. The leak was reported just after 6:30 p.m. when Dole employees called 911; officials stopped the leak and determined the plant's perimeter was safe about two hours later and allowed residents to return home.

No injuries were reported.

"Our saving grace was that the wind was blowing that way," Cal Fire spokesman Gabriel Santos, pointing west, told the Sun-Star at the scene Tuesday. "Otherwise we'd be evacuating the city of Atwater."

Daniel Berlant, another Cal Fire spokesman, told The Times on Tuesday that about 25 evacuated residents said they felt unsafe going home and opted for overnight hotel vouchers provided by the Red Cross.

The Sun-Star reported that this was the second "significant incident" at the plant in less than two years. In February 2011, the newspaper said, a 1,000-square-foot fire burned at the site.

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-- Kate Mather

Follow Kate Mather on Twitter or Google+.

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