An ammonia leak Sunday at Kunzler & Co. meats caused a large section of Lancaster City to be under a shelter-in-place order for several hours by emergency officials, leading to questions by residents on social media regarding the incident.
Crews were dispatched around 7:30 a.m. to the 600 block of Manor Street for the report of an ammonia smell in the neighborhood.
Benjamin Herskowitz, chief of HazMat 2 Environmental Fire Rescue Co., said individuals reported the ammonia smell, and crews discovered an “unknown odor inside and outside the facility” of the Kunzler plant at 652 Manor St.
HazMat teams responded and issued a shelter-in-place order for nearby residents, Herskowitz said, extending for several blocks around the Kunzler plant and as far away as the Manor Shopping Center in the 1200 block of Millersville Pike and Bright Side Baptist Church in the 500 block of Hershey Avenue.
The shelter-in-place actions included several actions like going indoors immediately, bringing all pets indoors, closing all windows and doors and calling 911 only if there was a true emergency.
Herskowitz said crews sampled the air outside with detectors at several public safety sampling points in the path of the ammonia plume. No concerning ammonia levels were detected, he said, and at no time was the public in any danger based on continuous air monitoring in the immediate neighborhood and also other parts of the city.
It was “just an unpleasant odor,” he said.
Herskowitz said it appeared much of the ammonia released inside Kunzler came in a liquid form “that vaporizes quickly.” Crews contained the leak at 11:49 a.m., he said, and the manufacturing system using the ammonia was shut down by staff.
“It’s a complex system, so shutting it down takes time for pressure to balance in the system and make sure all the proper procedures are followed so we can keep the community safe,” Herskowitz said. “There may still be brief instances of an ammonia smell, but it is not harmful to the public. You can detect ammonia by smell far before it becomes dangerous.”
The shelter-in-place order was lifted by 2:30 p.m.
No injuries were reported in the incident. Officials said elevated levels of ammonia were only found within the facility.
Herskowitz said the response included a coordinated effort between the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire, Lancaster City and County Emergency Management agencies, the mayor’s office, Kunzler staff, Lancaster EMS and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
On Sunday morning, word started to spread on social media about the shelter-in-place order.
Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons and Rep. Izzy Smith-Wade-El both posted on their social media accounts about the emergency, pointing residents towards information provided by HazMat 2 Environmental Fire Rescue Co.
Residents throughout the city and parts of the county started posting their own messages about the situation, saying they were confused by the order or that they didn’t know a shelter-in-place order had been issued.
Officials said police went door-to-door in the immediate area to let residents know about the order.
Representatives from Lancaster City said it does not have an official emergency message alert system. It does have an opt-in app program called Fix It! Lancaster that sends messages to residents signed up for the program.
Lancaster resident Katie Ruth posted several messages on Facebook on Sunday, saying no one knocked on the doors of homes on her street in the city and that “there were children still playing outside up until about 30 minutes ago.”
“Why are there no updates?” Ruth asked on social media. “Is our water safe to drink? Is our air safe? Are masks, respirators, or other safety devices beyond air quality monitors being distributed? Why has the public announcement system not been used to notify more people?”
Herskowitz said emergency crews fielded several questions as to why residents were asked to shelter in place instead of evacuating. He said Sunday’s incident provided more danger for evacuation because the amount of ammonia outside would be higher than inside a home and the wind would eventually cause it to dissipate.
“Being inside and staying inside with windows closed makes that safer for the public,” Herskowitz said.