Attempted theft of ammonia gas perhaps by old-school methamphetamine cookers appears to be the cause of a leak in a cold storage plant in downtown Kent this morning.
Investigators found that someone had taken the cap off an outside valve that was no longer used.
Kent Fire Department responded to a 6:45 a.m. report of a strong chemical smell in the 300 block of Railroad Ave. N. at Washington Cold Storage. Ammonia is used in the plant’s refrigeration process and is considered toxic.
Firefighters quickly cordoned off an area surrounding the business and Kent Police closed West James Street in both directions in order to ensure that no one was exposed to the toxic gas. The gas leak also affected the operations of Mill Creek Middle School and the Regional Justice Center.
Fortunately, no gas reached either facility. Because the wind was blowing from the east, the Metro Transit Center and Sounder Train Station were not closed but were monitored closely.
Kent fire spokesman Capt. Kyle Ohashi said the toxic danger from ammonia dictated that the department takes the leak very seriously.
Fire department hazardous material response teams from throughout south King County also were dispatched. Teams from Renton, Tukwila, the Port of Seattle and Boeing assisted the Kent Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team.
King County Paramedics and SeaTac Fire Department’s Rehab unit also responded to support the operation.
Hazardous materials technicians in fully encapsulating suits were able to shut off the gas leak by 9:00 a.m., Ohashi said.
Once the gas dissipated, firefighters were able to determine that there were no further leaks. Tests done inside of the cold storage facility showed that no gas got into the building and employees were allowed inside shortly after that. It is unknown how much gas escaped out of the exterior valve.
There were no reports of any injuries due to the ammonia gas. The potential for injuries was very high due to the nature of the caustic compound. Ammonia can be toxic and in a gaseous form will cause respiratory distress and eye irritation.
No employees were in the facility at the time of the leak, but arrived later in the morning and provided critical information about the refrigeration system and valves. The Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency were notified of the leak.
Kent police spokesman Lt. Pat Lowery said they are treating the incident as an attempted theft.
Exactly why anyone would want ammonia isn’t clear, he said.
He said old-school meth manufacturers used to use ammonia in the process but police haven’t seen it used for quite awhile.
The problem with ammonia in making meth, he said, is that the chemical is volatile.