Meat Processing Plant in St. Charles Catches Fire

Last Friday a meat processing plant in southeastern Minnesota caught fire. When it did officials hurried to evacuate all 3,600 residents of the town of St. Charles, who may not have realized that they were living downwind of five huge tanks of the invisible toxic gas anhydrous ammonia.

If you're not familiar with anhydrous ammonia, then you're probably not a farmer who uses it as a cheap fertilizer, a food processor who needs it to run gigantic refrigerators, or an illegal drug manufacturer specializing in Crystal Meth. All of these industries use anhydrous ammonia to produce things that other people in other places want to buy, be it vegetables, cold cuts or illegal drugs. And where there is anhydrous ammonia, there is the potential for terrifying and deadly accidents, from large-scale fires to smaller tank leakages that can injure or kill workers.

If the tanks at North Star Foods containing over 30,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia had burst in the flames of last Friday's fire, this could have sent a cloud of toxic gas floating through the area, injuring or possibly killing everyone in its path. Thankfully firefighters were able to prevent this from happening, but the plant burned to the ground anyway. According to the Associated Press, many residents now fear that they will lose their jobs if the plant decides not to rebuild.

But hold on a minute: You're telling me that you live in close proximity to 30,000 pounds of an invisible toxic gas, which almost burst into flames and could have turned your skin into putty or chemically burned your eyes and lungs, and when reporters ask about the experience, you tell them you are worried about jobs?

Not to be insensitive to the economic realities that rural communities face, but I'm not so sure I would want the plant to rebuild in my community. I'm also not so sure that the people who live in St. Charles have any other choice. As one of the people quoted in the AP article said, "Small towns can't afford to lose a business." What they didn't say was that sometimes economic growth means building a bomb in your backyard.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Ammonia Refrigeration Specialist's picture

Notwithstanding the news reports, there was virtually no danger of an ammonia tank explosion in this conflagration. The pressure vessel are protected and engineered steel tank meant to hold the ammonia during a fire at ahigher pressure. They are equipped with pressure relief valves which bleed off the refrigerant and serve to chill the tank with its own refrigeration effect. It is not uncommon for the only thing to be standing after a catastrophic fire like this, to be the refrigeration tanks.

The ammonia that does bleed off is vented otuside to a safe area where the fire dept was shown where it went in advance through the RMP law.

North Star used to be a client, and I have been in the facility many times. Please stop spreading the hysteria.

posted on Mon, 04/20/2009 - 7:52am
shanai's picture
shanai says:

I know that these tanks are designed with safety in mind - and I'm glad for it! As I said, thankfully they did not burst last Friday. You're right to point out that this is a credit to the folks who designed them.

But that doesn't change the fact that the chemicals contained inside (in very large quantities) are highly toxic, and through human error can and sometimes do cause harm. Not to mention the potential threat that this kind of mass storage could pose to National Security, as explored in this essay about another toxic chemical used in manufacturing, PVC.

I'm just saying that I can see both sides - the benefit of using Ammonia for refrigeration and fertilizer, and also the risks. That's all I meant to point out - that there are risks, and in this case, they are shouldered by rural communities disproportionately.

I think we tend to believe that our technology is infallible, especially when we can't easily see it, forgetting that there are always trade-offs.

posted on Mon, 04/20/2009 - 10:04am
Ammonia Refrigeration Professional's picture
Ammonia Refrigeration Professional says:

So.... You know it, but choose to instead spread hysteria through articles like this? Puh LEEEZE! The risks were mitigated and very small for ammonia used in this manner.

No one was harmed because of the ammonia in this facility because of its design. In fact, most of the ammonia was burned in the conflagration. We enjoy abundant, safe food in this country because of ammonia refrigeration and the use of ammonia in agriculture as fertilizer. Ammonia is here to stay for these purposes.

posted on Tue, 06/23/2009 - 11:37am

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