July 31, 2007 — A shipping container venting ammonia fumes caused V.I. government emergency responders to stage an evacuation of a shipping companys yard and administrative offices Monday.
The release of toxic anhydrous ammonia from a pressurized tank within a 20-foot shipping container was reported Monday around 10:20 a.m. though the tank was apparently venting from Saturday night when the container was removed from the Tropical Shamrock vessel and placed on the Tropical Shipping container port dock in Crown Bay.
Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical composed of nitrogen and hydrogen and used is in both water purification and as a farm fertilizer. Exposure to the hazardous substance can cause chemical burns, particularly to the eyes, skin and respiratory system.
V.I. Fire Services personnel took the lead response role Monday morning in an effort to identify and contain the material. The tank continues to vent in the open air within the Tropical container yard. A 300-foot radius around the container has been closed off, said Fire Chief Glenn Milo Francis. The fumes, which are being released as a gas, do not pose a threat to the public, according to Homeland Security Director Mel Vanterpool. The vapor has been dissipated by the trade winds which are today blowing towards the west. The leak, he said, was very small in comparison.
Officials said at a news conference late Monday afternoon that the pressurized tank with about 8,100 pounds of the substance was being shipping from a company in Trinidad and Tobago to a water purification plant in Puerto Rico. The Virgin Islands was a transshipment point for the container the shipment was not intended for delivery to the Virgin Islands, according to Government House Communications Director Jean Greaux Jr.
Tropical Shipping St. Thomas manager Karim Shayoun said Monday that the company will fly a hazardous material expert to St. Thomas to determine how best to remove the container from the island though no timeframe was given for that determination to be made.
Emergency medical personnel said a Tropical vessel captain and a ground employee inhaled ammonia fumes but refused medical treatment at Schneider Regional Medical Center. They got a whiff of the fumes which kind of knocked them back, but they did not actually collapse, said EMS training officer Avon Chesterfield. The two persons exposed to the ammonia fumes were advised to remove their clothing and bathe as quickly as possible.
About 100 employees at Tropical Shipping and nearby Crowley Transportation Company were evacuated while nearby businesses MSI and Sea Chest continued normal business operations. There was no explanation from Tropical Shipping as to why the release of ammonia fumes from a venting tank was not immediately reported to local authorities.
Joining the Fire Service and EMS in Mondays response included representatives of the V.I. Police Department, U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Environmental Protection Agency, Division of Environmental Health, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Homeland Security, VITEMA and the Office of the Governor.
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