DECATUR, Nebraska — A farmer was killed Monday night after he went to investigate the source of an anhydrous ammonia leak north of Tekamah.
The man, Phillip W. Hennig, 59, lived about a quarter-mile from where the leak occurred in a pipeline, said his brother, Alan Hennig, who also lives nearby — about a half-mile from the leak site.
“He went to investigate the smell and was overcome by the vapors,” said Alan Hennig, who is 55.
The leak in the 8-inch underground line, which occurred before 9:20 p.m., has temporarily closed a stretch of U.S. Highway 75 north of Tekamah in both directions. A county road in the area also is temporarily closed, said Bruce Heine of Magellan Midstream Partners, the pipeline company.
About 50 residents in the area were evacuated overnight, said Burt County Sheriff Robert Pickell. Most, he said, went to stay with relatives or friends in Tekamah or Decatur.
The leak occurred about 8 miles north and three-fourths of a mile west of Tekamah.
Patti Johnson, who lives three or four miles from the leak site, said the pipeline also runs through her land. It’s buried, she said, except for where the leak occurred.
Johnson, 62, said she knew Phillip Hennig and called him “a wonderful man. A very kind, gentle soul.”
Johnson said some of her relatives were among those who had to evacuate.
“My brother called us and told us we needed to leave,” Johnson said. But she called the sheriff and was told to just stay put and close all the windows.
Johnson said she expected some cattle were killed by the leak because a cattle yard is near the leak site.
Heine said Magellan crews were investigating the cause of the pipeline failure. “At this moment, we don’t know what that may have been,” he said this morning.
The section of pipeline that failed will be removed and analyzed to determine what caused the break, Heine said.
Pipeline valves have been shut off in the area of the leak, Pickell said, and the remaining anhydrous ammonia that’s under pressure in the pipeline is being allowed to slowly bleed out.
About 9:20 p.m. Monday, Pickell said, the Burt County Sheriff’s Office received a call about an odor of anhydrous ammonia in the area of 3310 County Road P. At 9:40 p.m., Tekamah Fire and Rescue was dispatched to respond to an ammonia leak. The surrounding area was evacuated.
Pickell said someone called Burt County 911 at 10:05 p.m. to say a man was down in the area of the ammonia leak. At 2:25 a.m. today, Tekamah Fire and Rescue and Nebraska State Patrol hazardous materials crews reached the man and removed him from the area. He was pronounced dead at the scene. His name is being withheld pending notification of relatives.
Regulatory agencies were notified last night, Heine said, and representatives from those agencies are on site, as are Magellan workers and environmental experts.
Anhydrous ammonia, which is used as a farm fertilizer, is a pungent gas with suffocating fumes. It can cause breathing difficulty and irritation to eyes, nose or throat. Exposure to high concentrations can be fatal.
“It’s a very sad day for Magellan,” Heine said, referring to the death of the man. “Our prayers are with his family.”
The pipeline, Heine said, is 1,100 miles long, stretching from Texas to Mankato, Minnesota.
Heine said evacuees will be allowed to return to their homes when air quality readings return to safe levels for anhydrous ammonia around the leak site.
Magellan was working with evacuees to cover their expenses while they are displaced, he said.
One evacuee, Larry Bucy, 65, said he slept through authorities knocking on his door about the evacuation.
“I was in bed and didn’t hear them knocking,” he said.
Bucy said he awoke around 5 a.m. when a neighbor called advising him to evacuate to Decatur. He lives about four miles south and two miles east of town.
Bucy said he has used anhydrous ammonia in the past while farming and is fully aware of how dangerous it can be.
“You do not want to inhale it,” he said. “It will get to your lungs quick.”
Burt County has several pipelines that take pressurized anhydrous ammonia from a manufacturer to a distributor, said John Wilson, an extension educator in the county. The pipeline comes above ground every several miles so that it can be turned off in case of an emergency, Wilson said. Even if the pipeline is turned off, he said, the pressurized gas between the two shut-off points will continue to leak out. The time it takes for the gas to dissipate depends on humidity and winds, Wilson said.
Anhydrous ammonia seeks to bond with water molecules, Wilson said, causing burning in the eyes, nose and throat and lungs of someone who inhales it.
In his 30 years in the county, Wilson said he never has heard of an anhydrous ammonia pipeline leak requiring an evacuation. “It’s a rare, unusual and very serious situation, and this one unfortunately turned out tragic,” he said.
Motorists traveling between Decatur and Tekamah were detoured onto Nebraska Highways 51 and 32 and U.S. Highway 77. Electronic message boards and Burt County workers alerted motorists to the shutdown.
Pickell said officials hoped to have the pipeline issue resolved by this afternoon.
Federal officials oversee regulation of interstate pipelines. Investigators with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration were at the scene, and the National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team of four investigators on Tuesday. An NTSB spokesman said the federal investigators will work with state and local officials to determine what happened.
A preliminary report could take several weeks to complete. A full report could take a year or more.
Alan Hennig said his brother hadn’t gotten a good start on the harvest.
“It looks like it will be me and the neighbors getting the crop out this year,” he said.
Tekamah is a little more than 40 miles north of Omaha.