'Shelter-in-place' lifted after ammonia leak at vacant building - WDRB 41 Louisville News

'Shelter-in-place' lifted after ammonia leak at vacant building in downtown Louisville

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Downtown residents and workers were asked to stay inside Wednesday afternoon after a strong ammonia odor was found in a vacant, state-owned building.

No injuries were reported.

Officials issued the “shelter-in-place” warning for several blocks near the old Grocers Ice and Cold Storage building at 609 E. Main Street at around 12:30 p.m., reduced it to cover only the building's block at around 5:30 p.m., and then lifted it just after 11 p.m.

Emergency crews were ventilating the building in an effort to dissipate the anhydrous ammonia, said Capt. Salvador Melendez of the Louisville Division of Fire.

“The danger is inside. It’s important that we note that,” he said. “It does not pose a threat to any adjacent occupants to the building.”

The gas, which can cause eye and respiratory problems, is used as a refrigerant. It was active in the building’s cold storage system until the late 2000s, when Grocers Ice ceased operating, Melendez said.

Authorities didn’t immediately know how much gas was released. Melendez told reporters at a briefing Wednesday afternoon that it appeared to be a “residual” amount, but he later said "there's an active leak there somewhere."

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet bought the building in 2010 and razed part of it for the Ohio River Bridges Project. The state has twice failed to sell the property, including at a June auction that attracted no bidders.  

There was conflicting information about how thoroughly the property was checked for hazardous chemicals.

Louisville Fire’s inspection bureau reviewed the building in 2011 and found “no readings of any type of chemical products in the building,” Melendez said.

He said it is not typical for ammonia to be discovered once a building is abandoned. But he said officials since have learned that residual amounts of ammonia can remain in tanks even after they’re emptied.

“Once you discontinue a facility like this you have to ensure that everything is removed – all the product that would pose a threat is removed,” he said.

But as Kentucky attempted to sell the property in late June, a consultant working for the Transportation Cabinet issued a report noting “multiple unlabeled” above-ground storage tanks involved in ice making and cold storage, including some that once held anhydrous ammonia.

Louisville-based Linebach Funkhouser Inc. was “unable to determine that these tanks and associated piping have been emptied,” the company wrote in the report. It also found no records related to shutting down equipment that could contain the ammonia.

The Transportation Cabinet wasn’t immediately able to describe the steps it took to address the storage tanks and piping after buying the building.

“We’re going to let the investigation work its way out and we’ll respond accordingly,” said Ryan Watts, an agency spokesman.

He also wasn’t able to say how the leak may affect the state’s plan to sell the property.

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