Broken petcock the cause of last week’s ammonia leak

The ammonia leak at the Willis packing house that closed Highway 35 for approximately two hours last week was apparently caused by a broken petcock, a small valve used to control the flow of liquid or gas, off the bottom of a receiver tank, said Wy’East Fire Chief Greg Borton.

“We know that there was a person working in the engine room” at the time the leak was first reported at 2 p.m. on Oct. 8, Borton said, but it is unclear exactly how the petcock was damaged.

The Wy’East Fire District and the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office both responded, along with a Gresham Hazmat Team and ODOT.

Crews were able to quickly mitigate the situation as soon as they could safely enter the packing house: A deceptively simple task.

“The room was completely full of a cloud of ammonia, and that’s very dangerous to get into,” said Borton. The crews had to pressurize the engine room and ventilate it before they could get in to assess the situation.

Luckily, he said, the leak was downstream of a nearby shut-off valve.

The valve was located around 3:50 p.m. and Highway 35 was reopened around 4 p.m., at which time those who were evacuated from the area were allowed to return. Crews remained on-scene until approximately 4:30 p.m.

Neither Willis or the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office could not be reached for comment before press time.

Highway 35 was closed between Paasch Drive and Dethman Ridge Road, as well as all of Van Horn Drive and Mason Road, while crews dealt with the situation. As a result, Hood River Valley School District rerouted three bus routes to Wy’east Middle School, where students were to wait until a family member with photo ID could come pick them up.

School staff were notified of this at approximately 2:55 p.m., just half an hour before school let out. “So not a lot of time,” said Wy’east Principal Sarah Brahman-Smith, “but enough to make a plan.”

The hectic situation actually gave the school an opportunity to practice an emergency plan they had come up with after last year’s Eagle Creek fire and the winter storm the year before that.

“By no means did we do it as a formalized process,” Brahman-Smith said, “but we were able to work out some of the kinks and see how it worked.”

Bus numbers were put up on the cafeteria walls, snacks were distributed, and the rerouted students hung out with the ExCEL After School Program while they waited for their families. They thought that, if kids were still waiting when the time the road reopened, that they could use the ExCEL bus to take them home, though they didn’t end up needing it. “Families were all able to get someone here,” Brahman-Smith said.

“We were really pleased with how well the students responded, as well as the staff,” she said.

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