A faulty hose apparently caused about 300 gallons of ammonia to vaporize and leak from a Laurel ice cream factory last night, resulting in the evacuation of 15 workers and about 60 nearby residents.
Jack Sherman, general manager of the East Coast Ice Cream Novelties plant at 9090 Whiskey Bottom Road near U.S. 1, said the leak occurred while the ammonia was being transferred from one storage tank to another. "It was a temporary thing and it probably will not happen again for years and years to come," he said today.
The plant makes ice cream products for High's convenience stores.
Workers were evacuated when the leak began about 8:44 p.m., said Battalion Chief Donald R. Howell of the Howard County Fire Department. He said four workers, a firefighter and one other person were treated for mild inhalation of ammonia fumes.
Members of the county fire department's hazardous materials team stopped the flow of ammonia and cleaned up the spill.
"We understand several hundred gallons of ammonia, which is used as a refrigerant at the plant, did escape from a fractured pipe," Chief Howell said.
The ammonia caused a vapor cloud to form over the area. The cloud drifted a quarter-mile from the plant, shifting directions with the wind and passing over a nearby mobile home park, fire officials said.
About 9 p.m., some 60 residents of the Pfister Trailer Park were evacuated from their trailers as a precaution. They gathered outside the nearby California Inn up a hill from the plant, fire officials said.
Thirty-one pieces of fire department equipment and more than 60 fire and rescue personnel responded to the emergency.
"The biggest thing was how we'd stop the leak and dissipate the cloud," said Battalion Chief Richard Freas.
Members of the hazardous materials team stopped the flow of ammonia shortly after 10 p.m. and used water to dilute the ammonia and fans to ventilate the building.
"The winds took care of the rest," Chief Freas said. He said that because the water diluted the ammonia before it could get into nearby streams, there was no health risk.
"It's not an environmental problem once the dilution occurs," Chief Freas said.
Residents of the trailer park were allowed to return to their homes shortly after 10:30 p.m.
Chief Freas said the leak could have caused a major problem.
To illustrate the potential severity, he said a container of household ammonia, which is diluted with water, is almost unbearable if inhaled. "This is 100 percent," he said of the ammonia that leaked. "So you can imagine . . . it's some potent stuff."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.