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3 towns evacuated after ammonia leak

Apr 24, 2007 | AP

An ammonia leak at an agriculture plant left this small town mostly empty Tuesday morning after hundreds of residents were ordered to evacuate and at least 10 people became sick from the fumes, authorities said.

Workers had been transferring anhydrous ammonia from a 9,000-gallon storage tank at Seward Agricultural Supply Inc. to a tanker truck late Monday when the hose burst, State Police Sgt. Mark Nytko said.

Emergency crews noticed a white cloud drifting from the area, and residents said the air smelled strongly of ammonia.

The leak was stopped early Tuesday, but an evacuation order remained in effect for Seward's fewer than 1,000 residents, said Sgt. Aaron Booker of the Winnebago County sheriff's department.

Dozens of Seward residents evacuated to the nearby village of Pecatonica only to find themselves under a voluntary evacuation there later Monday, officials said. It wasn't until early Tuesday that residents of Pecatonica and nearby Winnebago, also under a voluntary evacuation, were told it was safe to return, Booker said.

Kurt Ditzler, chief deputy of the sheriff's department, said authorities were monitoring weather conditions Tuesday morning to determine when all of Seward's residents could return.

Larry Johnson, assistant manager of Seward Agricultural Supply Inc., said Tuesday that the company would investigate as soon as the fumes dissipated.

"At this point we can't get close enough to the transport to determine what happened," Johnson said.

Ten people, including at least one firefighter, were treated for respiratory problems, a Rockford Memorial Hospital spokesman said. None of the injuries was considered life-threatening, he said. One woman was kept overnight for observation, said Steve Sternickle, the hospital's clinical resource coordinator.

Anhydrous ammonia can be extremely toxic. Its vapor is irritating and corrosive, according to the federal Emergency Response Guidebook.

Seward is about 100 miles northwest of Chicago.

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