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Falkville residents get all clear after toxic chemical leak

By Michael Wetzel

For the Enquirer

Falkville residents are in the clear after a dicey situation with a toxic chemical leak led to an evacuation effort last week.

Falkville Mayor Ken Winkles said a commercial driver pulled his truck into the Marathon fuel station on Morgan County 55, just off I-65, about 8:25 p.m. Wednesday and informed authorities his tanker was leaking anhydrous ammonia, a toxic chemical used as a fertilizer component.

“Decatur HAZMAT team was at the scene in less than 30 minutes and was able to close a leaky valve on the tanker,” said Mike Swafford, Morgan County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. He said it took at least another hour for the dangerous chemical cloud to dissipate.

“We evacuated everybody within a half-mile radius of the station,” Winkles said. “Some of the truckers at Love’s (truck stop) were asleep. We woke them up and had them move away. Many residents stayed at Town Hall until they were allowed back home. They all seemed glad to be safe.”

The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office closed I-65 from the Lacon to Thompson Road exits until the hazardous situation had ended about 4.5 hours later, Swafford said. He said state troopers took over the road closure, and traffic was rerouted to U.S. Highway 31 to keep vehicles safely away.

“The truck has been quarantined,” Winkles said. “The truck driver pulled into an isolated portion of the parking lot at the station to keep his truck away from the other vehicles.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anhydrous ammonia is a pungent gas with suffocating fumes that is used as a fertilizer.

When humans are exposed to the chemical, it can rapidly cause dehydration and severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Symptoms can include breathing difficulty, irritation of the eyes, nose or throat and burns or blisters. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death, the CDC website says.

According to the Fertilizer Institute, handling anhydrous ammonia requires personal protective equipment and special training and refresher sessions for its handlers.

The Falkville Volunteer Fire Department was still at the scene at 10 a.m. the next day, Winkles said.

Other agencies responding to the scene were Falkville Police Department, Hartselle Police Department, Decatur Fire and Rescue and Morgan County Emergency Management Agency.

“All of the departments worked really well together,” Winkles said. “It could have been a lot worse.”