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'It's always a potential risk': Houston County says they're prepared for hazmat situations

After a liquid nitrogen leak killed six at a Gainesville chicken plant, Houston County EMA Director says they're prepared if something like that were to happen here

HOUSTON COUNTY, Ga. — The investigation continues into the cause of a liquid nitrogen leak at a Gainesville chicken plant that killed six people.

It's a pretty common chemical found in food processing plants and, while not poisonous to humans, it can kill you.

When it expands from a liquid into a gaseous state, it can displace the oxygen in your lungs and suffocate you.

RELATED: Here's what we know about the Gainesville liquid nitrogen leak

Taking a look around Central Georgia, we have manufacturing plants in our own back yards that use similar and fairly common chemicals.

Perdue Farms, Frito-Lay and a lively train route means chemicals are on the move and being used in Houston County. 

Houston County came close to its own chemical spill about a year and a half ago when a Norfolk Southern train derailed.

"I believe it was some acids, some ammonia, maybe, but it was significant enough hazmat that we would've had to evacuate a large area," Chris Stoner, Houston County's Fire Chief and EMA Director said after the accident.

They didn't have to evacuate the area because the cars containing those chemicals weren't among the 32 that derailed.

He says that 2019 train derailment was the closest the county has come to a large-scale chemical spill in recent years.

So, what would happen if Houston County did have a chemical spill? What protocols are in place?

"There's hazards that come through the community all the time," says Stoner.
"There's rail that goes up and down all the time. It passes through some very populated areas. Then you've got all the manufacturing facilities with their chemicals that they use."

He says they go in to the larger plants, like Perdue Farms, and annually review their chemicals and protocols.

"We actually do exercises with our hazmat team on site with a lot of these facilities every year, so not only do we train on what they have, but we train with their personnel."

He says the strong working relationship they have with the plants in Houston County and train companies are vital.

The firefighters are also all trained on how to manage chemical spills and a handful are trained on how to actually suit up and go in to patch the leak or fix a pipe. 

"They're also the ones who go in and remove the victims if there is any and properly decontaminate them and provide them medical care."

He says it's all about the safety measures the companies take on their own to make sure their workers and the communities they're in are safe.

"Anytime you have substances like that, it's always a potential risk associated with it," he says. "It's always something that's there that we have to train for and learn how to mitigate."

Stoner says the hardest part in these types of situations is a large scale evacuation and crowd control. He encourages everyone in Houston County to sign up for 'Code Red' to get updates on emergencies in their area. 

If something happens in your area and you aren't signed up for those alerts, you could get a knock on your door.

"Law enforcement or fire or whoever is available will go out and go door to door to hit those areas that did receive a notification to make sure that they're evacuating. You can imagine, if something happened in Warner Robins or in a higher populated area, that's a lot of households to try to reach in person."

Stoner says what happened in Gainesville was a tragedy.

"I know those guys up there. I've trained with them in the past with different things, been on different boards with them and it's tragic. I know they hate it and they did everything they could possibly do to save all the lives that they could."

RELATED: Houston County train wreck did $5 million-plus in damage, posed hazmat risk

RELATED: 'This is not a playing matter': Perdue plant employees walk out over COVID-19 concerns

RELATED: Frito-Lay to invest $200M in Houston County expansion, adding 120 new jobs

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