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Clean-up continues after ammonia leak forces evacuation of Portland neighborhood

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Clean-up continues after ammonia leak forces evacuation of Portland neighborhood

PORTLAND — Crews were expected to finish cleaning up contamination at a cold storage facility by midweek, following an ammonia leak that forced the evacuation of about 75 homes for several hours on Friday, Jan. 22.

Firefighters responded to the report of an ammonia leak at AmeriCold Logistics, 165 Read St., at about 11:15 a.m. Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said that when crews arrived, workers were evacuating the warehouse and told firefighters there was an ammonia cloud inside the building.

The Fire Department's hazardous materials team responded, and a team of ammonia experts from Massachusetts was called in, along with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said that even though the leak was contained inside the building, the surrounding neighborhood was evacuated as a precaution. Responders eventually had to ventilate the building by releasing ammonia into the atmosphere.

Clegg also said that it took crews a while to find the cause of the leak, because they were searching with flashlights and could only enter the building in 30-minute increments.

"They turned off what they call the king valve at about 5 p.m.," Clegg said, and that stopped the leak. However, there was still ammonia trapped in pipes and crews had to search for smaller valves to turn off.

"It wasn't an easy building to ventilate," she said. "There are no windows and the power was off."

Although the initial report was of an explosion, LaMontagne said the leak was determined to have happened in a room where the ceiling is filled with copper coils similar to those on the back of a household refrigerator, but much larger. Some of the coils fell from the ceiling and damaged pipes in the room, which caused the leak. The explosion was actually the coils hitting the floor.

Ammonia, a gas, is flammable and has a very pungent odor.

LaMontagne said the building was turned over to the DEP and AmeriCold Logistics for monitoring and clean-up at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.

John Woodard of the DEP said his department was overseeing clean-up at the site, which is being performed by outside contractors hired by AmeriCold. The clean-up involves removing contaminated ice and water. Clean Harbors will dispose of the contamination.

Woodard said he expected clean-up to be finished in the next day or two. At that point, workers will be able to enter the facility to try to determine what caused the refrigeration unit to fall from the ceiling.

LaMontagne said that the fire, police and emergency responders to the incident did a great job coordinating with each other.

Residents of Read Street, Gleckler Road, Wellington Road, Carlyle Road and Glengarden Street were evacuated beginning at about 3 p.m. Friday. Firefighters and police officers went door to door explaining the situation to residents. Metro buses parked at nearby Cheverus High School were made available for residents who wanted to wait there and stay warm.

People were allowed back to their homes at about 10:45 p.m.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net