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Authorities say teens were tapping a pipe, and one was burned.
By REBECCA CATALANELLO, KEVIN GRAHAM and SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writers
Published November 13, 2007
[Photo by Brian MacKay]
RIVERVIEW - Brian MacKay thought he saw plumes of smoke near his Alafia River home Monday, just as daylight began to fade.
Perhaps someone needed help, thought MacKay, and so he put his boat into the river, heading east toward the white cloud beneath the U.S. 301 bridge.
"When I got my first whiff, I said, 'Oops, that's ammonia,'" MacKay, 55, said.
Three teenage boys drilled into a 30-mile-long anhydrous ammonia pipeline about 5:30 p.m., unleashing a chemical cloud, according to authorities. The three told investigators that they heard there was money stashed in it.
Winds blew the potentially harmful vapors in a northwesterly direction, prompting Hillsborough County Fire Rescue to evacuate about 300 people. Emergency officials also used reverse 911 to notify 3,659 households of the danger.
The breach, not the first to menace eastern Hillsborough County in recent years, underscored the hidden danger of pipelines that course through residential areas on their way to fertilizer companies in Polk County.
The chemical spray sent one of the boys, 16, to Tampa General Hospital with second-degree chemical burns from his neck to his groin.
Investigators initially said they believed the boy was involved in the drilling for the purpose of creating methamphetamine, but they later backed away from that theory.
Shortly before 11 p.m., sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the boy and two friends, ages 14 and 16, said they drilled into the pipe looking for money.
"This kid had no idea what he was up against," Hillsborough Fire Rescue Capt. Bruce Delk said. One firefighter was also taken to Tampa General after chemical exposure.
Monday's leak was in an above-water pipe that runs between the Alafia River and the U.S. 301 bridge, Delk said.
Late into the night, choppy water, muddy banks and residual pressure in a 200-foot length of pipe stymied efforts to seal it with a sleeve, an oversized pipe.
Following the rupture, one valve controlling the flow of ammonia on the southern end of the line shut down automatically. Tampa Pipeline, which manages the line, turned off the flow of ammonia on the northern side.
Still, lingering gas continued to escape as investigators searched for the hole.
Crews sprayed water into the air above the site, hoping the airborne ammonia would attach to water molecules and drop into the river. Directing the chemicals into the river, Delk said, was the lesser of two evils. Keeping the ammonia airborne would endanger more people, he said.
Residents waited for word about when they could go home.
Margaret Fowler, 76, had opened the door to her Bridgewood Drive home about 6:30 p.m. Monday to see a law enforcement officer in a gas mask.
"He said, 'Out. Now. There's no time,'" she recalled at Riverview Elementary, which officials quickly converted into a shelter.
With no time to pack, Fowler grabbed her medicine, dog food and German shepherd and left with family members.
"We could hardly breathe," she said.
By 9:30 p.m., the evacuation zone had been downgraded from a milelong stretch to a half-mile west of U.S. 301 south of Riverview, with some residents expected to be banned from re-entering for up to 24 hours.
The hazard of ammonia is real and the effects can vary, depending on its concentration at the time of human contact, said Rick Garrity, executive director of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
"It can be very unhealthy if you breathe it in," he said. "It can overcome you."
But Delk said residents who were at home during the leak are unlikely to suffer long-term effects.
Officials were uncertain how devastating it might be to the Alafia. Ammonia is a caustic chemical that can cause tissue and vegetation burns, Garrity said. It can kill fish and any plants along the shore.
A crew will look today for a fish kill, Garrity said, adding that there will probably be a short-term toxic effect.
On May 27, 2003, a similar pipeline break-in - a mile and a half west of the intersection of Lithia-Pinecrest Road and FishHawk Boulevard - caused evacuations and two days of school closures.
It took firefighters 34 hours to control that ammonia leak, which came from a coin-sized break in the 6-inch pipeline running 3 feet beneath the ground. In that case, authorities arrested Valrico resident Richard Erick Hansen Jr., 33, who pleaded guilty in December 2003 to conspiracy to manufacture a controlled substance and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one gallon of anhydrous ammonia sells for more than $300 on the black market. Only a small amount of the chemical is needed to make a batch of methamphetamine.
Late Monday, there were no charges and a sheriff's spokeswoman was referring to the incident as one of "criminal mischief."
As crews battled the cloud, Laura Stone, 42, waited anxiously at the northwest corner of U.S. 301 and Riverview Road.
Stone lives in a mobile home park, and she scurried from her job at Bob Evans Restaurant when she heard of the ammonia.
Her concern? Her 8-year-old chihuahua, Precious.
Stone said Precious had plenty of food, water and air-conditioning, but Stone was worried about the ammonia fumes.
As containment efforts continued into the night, Stone and her daughter dodged a sheriff's roadblock and sneaked back home, determined to check on the dog.
Stone said she flung open the front door and yelled out, "Run, Precious, run." Out came the dog, and the three evacuated again.
Times staff writers S.I. Rosenbaum, Abbie VanSickle, Catherine E. Shoichet and Michael Van Sickler and news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
It is stored as a liquid under pressure. When released into the environment, it becomes a toxic gas. That released vapor attaches itself to water sources, including human airways. The vapor burns skin and leads to swelling in the lungs and airways. Anyone who inhales too much can die. It is used in fertilizer production. Only a small amount of the chemical is needed to make a batch of methamphetamine, also called the "poor man's cocaine." One gallon of anhydrous ammonia sells for more than $300 on the black market, according to the EPA.
- For more information on ammonia, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet at www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts126.pdf
[Last modified November 13, 2007, 01:09:11]