Feds investigate latest leak at Gainesville poultry plant where 6 died

A Hall County Sheriff’s patrol car sits outside of the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville on February 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
A Hall County Sheriff’s patrol car sits outside of the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville on February 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Federal labor standards investigators say they are looking into complaints of a March ammonia leak at the Gainesville poultry plant where six workers died in a nitrogen leak.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has opened an inquiry into allegations related to the March 11 leak at Foundation Food Group. The incident came less than two months after six people perished of asphyxiation from the Jan. 28 nitrogen leak, which is still under investigation. Nitrogen, like ammonia, is used to flash-freeze meat but can cause respiratory failure in high enough concentrations.

U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, wrote a letter this week to OSHA, asking for an update on the nitrogen leak investigation. “I appreciate your swift action to investigate and hold the appropriate people accountable,” Warnock wrote.

On March 11, Hall County Fire Services was notified at 4 p.m. of a leak that “may have occurred” more than six hours earlier, said agency spokesman Zach Brackett.

But a complaint filed with OSHA by a local workers’ advocacy group describes a dangerous leak that yet again traumatized and sickened Foundation Food Group employees.

“During both leaks, workers heard no alarms when toxic gas — both nitrogen and ammonia — was released into the air and all 130 workers were forced to exit through a single door due to a lack of sufficient emergency doors,” says the complaint by GA Familias Unidas, a mutual-aid group that has been assisting employees and victims’ families since the January tragedy. “Many workers feared that they would die during the ammonia leak just as their co-workers had six weeks prior.”

Flowers, candles, notes and stuffed animals are displayed at a makeshift vigil outside of the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville on February 2, 2021. Six people died while working at the plant, January 28, when a liquid nitrogen line ruptured. Five people died at the scene on Memorial Park Drive, and 12 others were taken to the emergency room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center with injuries, officials said. One of those patients died at the hospital. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Flowers, candles, notes and stuffed animals are displayed at a makeshift vigil outside of the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville on February 2, 2021. Six people died while working at the plant, January 28, when a liquid nitrogen line ruptured. Five people died at the scene on Memorial Park Drive, and 12 others were taken to the emergency room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center with injuries, officials said. One of those patients died at the hospital. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The group alleges workers hadn’t received training or done drills on what to do during a toxic leak.

Foundation Food Group said in a statement it trains employees for emergencies and is “committed to taking any additional measures necessary to further ensure the safety of our employees.” The company didn’t address the numerous allegations in the OSHA complaint.

The complaint, filed March 26, says the March incident left employees experiencing sore throats, nausea and headaches. Several who inhaled the ammonia were pregnant, the complaint says. The leak also exacerbated troubles that workers had been battling since January, including chest pain, anxiety and trouble sleeping. Several had to go home the day of the ammonia leak, the complaint says.

GA Familias Unidas said recent events at the plant call to mind the 1991 fire at a Hamlet, North Carolina, chicken plant that claimed the lives of 25 workers as they tried to unlock exit doors.

OSHA asked anyone with information on either Gainesville leak to contact investigators at 1-800-321-OSHA.

Some employees may be fearful of coming forward because of their immigration status or concerns about losing their job, though OSHA attempted to quell those concerns. The agency reminded that employees can be anonymous and that it’s illegal for employers to retaliate against those who complain about safety issues.

Most of the plant’s workers are people from Mexico or Central America who fled abuse, violence and poverty, GA Familias Unidas said.

Those who died in January were José DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, of Gainesville; Corey Alan Murphy, 35, of Clermont; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28, of Gainesville; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, of Dawsonville; Victor Vellez, 38, of Gainesville; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville.

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