UPDATE, 10:15 a.m. -- U.S. Highway 75 remains closed in both directions north of Tekamah after the anhydrous ammonia leak. A meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. in Decatur to update landowners who were evacuated on the progress of the pipeline repair and air quality readings. In addition, funeral services for Phillip Hennig are pending through Pelan Funeral Services in Tekamah.
DECATUR, Neb. — The farmer who died checking into a pipeline leak of the deadly gas anhydrous ammonia was well-known among his neighbors for his friendly, involved nature.
Phillip W. Hennig, 59, lived about a quarter-mile from where the leak occurred in the interstate pipeline, said his brother, Alan Hennig, who also lives nearby.
“He went to investigate the smell and was overcome by the vapors,” said Alan Hennig, 55.
Phillip Hennig was a fixture in the Decatur-Tekamah area. He was active in 4-H and at Riverside Baptist Church, where he had worshiped his whole life.
“Both communities are really shaken by this,” said Matt Connealy, a Burt County Board member and former state legislator.
Bill Method, 61, of rural Decatur, who had to evacuate because of the pipeline breach, went to school with Hennig.
“He was a very friendly guy,” Method said. “He was well-liked.”
In 4-H, Hennig coached youths in sport shooting and helped several children, including his own, advance to the national level, said Darin Greunke, 47, of Winside, Nebraska.
Greunke said Hennig was a great shooting instructor because of his knowledge and patience. “Any time you are working with youth you have to have patience,” he said.
The leak occurred in an above-ground portion of the 8-inch-diameter underground line sometime before 9:20 p.m. Monday.
By the time authorities realized that there was a leak and went toward its source, Hennig’s body was in an area too dangerous to reach. Information on precisely where and when he died was not immediately available.
The leak led to the closure of a stretch of U.S. Highway 75 north of Tekamah in both directions. Because anhydrous ammonia continued to leak Tuesday, the highway was to remain closed into today, said Bruce Heine of Magellan Midstream Partners, the pipeline company.
About 40 people in 23 homes within a 2-mile radius of the leak were evacuated Monday night, and it was uncertain when they would be allowed to return, Heine said. Magellan was working with the affected residents to cover their expenses associated with the evacuation, he said.
Air quality was improving, Heine said Tuesday afternoon, “but not enough to allow residents to return home.”
Anhydrous ammonia is a commonly used fertilizer in agriculture, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and a former anhydrous ammonia dealer. It is one of the most dangerous materials that farmers work with, he said.
Hansen said he could understand why Hennig searched for the source of the leak.
“Obviously, when something is wrong, your first instinct is to investigate,” he said. “He was probably overcome immediately and was not able to escape.”
Anhydrous ammonia is in liquid form when in the pipeline but vaporizes when exposed to air. It has a pungent smell.
The Magellan pipeline that runs through Nebraska is 1,100 miles long, stretching from Texas to Mankato, Minnesota, Heine said. It is one of two anhydrous ammonia pipelines in the United States.
Heine said that around 10 p.m. Monday, the company’s remote sensing system detected a pressure drop on the portion of the pipeline that runs through Burt County. A pressure drop means a release may have occurred, he said.
“We didn’t wait to visually see that we had a release, we contacted authorities promptly,” he said. “We did determine that we had an active release, and, unfortunately and very sadly, (Hennig) had come into contact with a vapor cloud in the area. ... Our prayers are with his family.”
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 few miles so that it can be turned off in case of an emergency, he said. Even if the pipeline is turned off, he said, the pressurized gas between 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.
Connealy said most people in the area don’t worry about this or other pipelines. Chemicals like anhydrous ammonia and propane that Burt County farmers and residents need are all shipped by pipelines.
“We’ve been around the pipeline our whole lives. It’s something we all know is here,” he said.
Heine said 25 Magellan employees and 21 contractors, including pipeline repair specialists and air quality monitoring experts, were at the leak site.
Federal officials oversee regulation of interstate pipelines. Investigators with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were on site Tuesday or were due to arrive. An NTSB spokesman said the federal investigators would work with state and local officials to determine what happened.
Officials hadn’t determined the cause of the leak as of Tuesday. A preliminary report could take several weeks to complete, and a full report could take a year or more.
Burt County Sheriff Robert Pickell said pipeline valves have been shut off in the area of the leak and the remaining anhydrous ammonia that’s under pressure in the pipeline is being allowed to slowly bleed out.
The section of pipeline that failed will be removed and analyzed to determine what caused the break, Heine said. Operations of the pipeline will remain suspended until repairs can be made, he said.
Patti Johnson, who lives a few 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.”
Some of Johnson’s 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 stay put and close all the windows.
Johnson said she expected that some cattle had been killed by the leak because a cattle yard is near the leak site.
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.”
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.
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.
World-Herald staff writers Dan Golden, Mara Klecker, Bob Glissmann and Julie Anderson contributed to this report.
» About 9:20 p.m. Monday, the Burt County Sheriff’s Office receives a call about anhydrous ammonia odor in the area of 3310 County Road P.
» At 9:40 p.m., Tekamah Fire and Rescue is dispatched to the ammonia leak. The surrounding area is evacuated.
» Around 10 p.m. (precise time unspecified), Magellan Midstream Partners’ remote sensing system detects a pressure drop on its pipeline in Burt County. The company contacts local authorities.
» At 10:05 p.m., someone calls 911 to say a man is down in the area of the leak.
» In the early morning hours, neighbors are evacuated.
» At 2:25 a.m. Tuesday, Tekamah Fire and Rescue and Nebraska State Patrol hazardous materials crews reach the man and remove him from the area. He is pronounced dead at the scene.
Sources: Burt County Sheriff Robert Pickell, Magellan Midstream Partners
About anhydrous ammoniaWhat is it? It’s a gas used as a fertilizer, refrigerant and for other industrial purposes. It is compressed into liquid form for transportation.
How is it used as a fertilizer? Plants need nitrogen, and ammonia is nitrogen combined with hydrogen.
What does it do to a person? It damages lungs, airways, windpipe, nasal passages.
How? It inflicts a chemical burn, causing swelling and burning of the lungs, and making it hard for a person to breathe.
Is there a therapy? The only treatment is supportive care — ventilation and rest.
Source: Dr. Ron Kirschner, medical director, Nebraska Regional Poison Center
Magellan Midstream Partners: Man killed by anhydrous ammonia in Nebraska
Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 8:44 am
TEKAMAH, Neb. — A pipeline operator has reported that a release of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer in northeast Nebraska has killed a man.
Magellan Midstream Partners, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, said in a news release Tuesday that the leak occurred late Monday evening in part of its 8-inch pipeline system near Tekamah. The cause of the leak is being investigated.
The company said other nearby residents were evacuated and some roads were closed.
The man's name hasn't been released.
Magellan says it's notified local, state and federal authorities. A dispatcher said the Burt County sheriff was unavailable, and the phone rang unanswered at county emergency manager's office. Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Jodie Fawl says a state emergency response team has been dispatched, but she had no other information.
Anhydrous pipeline officials to meet with towns people
NICHOLAS BERGIN Lincoln Journal Star
Updated 24 min ago
BURT COUNTY, NE -- Two days after a rural Burt County man was killed by leaking anhydrous ammonia, pipeline officials will meet with area residents at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Magellan Midstream Partners of Tulsa, Oklahoma, will meet with people who were evacuated from their homes Monday night at City Hall in Decatur.
Wednesday morning, Magellan officials said more than 50 company and pipeline contract representatives, federal regulators and state and local emergency responders are on site. They are working to repair a leak and said air quality readings continue to improve.
"It is our goal to completely isolate the failed portion of the pipeline today, which will allow the reopening of local roadways," Magellan spokesman Tom Byers said in a news release Wednesday morning. "A decision to allow local residents to return to their homes will be made later today."
George Kahlandt drives by the pipeline north of Tekamah every day on his way to help his nephew with the cattle.
He didn't think much about it until late Monday night, when a set of flashing lights came up his drive.
His wife, Sandra, saw the lights coming and opened the door. It was a couple Decatur volunteer firefighters.
The 8-inch pipeline, owned by Magellan Midstream Partners of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had ruptured and leaked anhydrous ammonia. There was a poisonous cloud of gas in the area and they needed to leave.
One man, 59-year-old Phillip Hennig, died and 23 homes within a two-mile radius had to be evacuated, and area roads were closed, including U.S. 75 going both directions between Nebraska 32 in Tekamah to Nebraska 51 in Decatur.
Anhydrous is widely used as fertilizer and is transported as a liquid but turns into a gas when released.
Area residents called authorities at 9:20 p.m. Monday to say they smelled anhydrous at 3310 County Road P, about 8 miles north of Tekamah and just west of U.S. 75.
“Being farmers, they knew (smelling) anhydrous was not a good thing," said Burt County Emergency Manager Terry Schroeder. "They started calling 911.”
Hennig left his home to investigate the smell. When he didn't return, his son, a recent high school graduate, went to look for him, said a relative, Joan Saxton.
Nebraska State Patrol’s HAZMAT team, working with Tekamah Fire and Rescue, reached the site and removed Hennig's body just before 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to Burt County Sheriff Robert Pickell.
Hennig's son was evaluated at an area hospital and released, Saxton said. No other injuries have been reported.
Magellan Midstream Partners reported 294,000 gallons of liquid anhydrous spilled, said company spokesman Bruce Heine. The company, which is working with state and federal regulators, is investigating the cause of the leak.
Magellan, which had 25 employees and 21 contractors in Nebraska working on the situation, set up an emergency headquarters at the Decatur fire house. The company expected to have the pipeline fixed by Wednesday. Meanwhile, those evacuated either stayed with family or at a hotel paid for by Magellan.
Completion of the repairs will eliminate the emissions coming from the site, allowing people to return to their homes and roadways to be reopened, Heine said.
Schroeder said there are concerns shifting winds could carry the anhydrous cloud. Some people have been allowed to return to their homes briefly to get medications or to care for animals. They were accompanied by officials who monitored the air to ensure their safety.
Larry and Christine Bucy stopped home to check on their chickens. The couple didn't evacuate their home until about 6 a.m. Tuesday when they woke up and saw a text from a neighbor suggesting they leave the area.
Emergency responders came to their door the night before, but they slept through it.
"We're such sound sleepers, we didn't hear them knocking," Christine Bucy said.
The couple and several of their neighbors spent Tuesday night at a hotel just across the Missouri River in Onawa, Iowa, paid for by Magellan.
Magellan shut off pipeline valves on either side of the leak and spent Tuesday emptying it of the remaining anhydrous, Heine said. The company had detected a loss of pressure in the system at about 9 the night before.
Neighbors and friends described Hennig as a good man who was involved in the community, his church and 4-H.
"It's a loss to the whole area," said Matt Connealy, a Burt County supervisor and former state senator. "This shows us we have to be very careful and figure out why this happened, so it never happens again."
Heine offered condolences for Hennig's family and community.
"There are no words I can give you that overcome the loss of a life. a gentleman lost his life last night that was near or in the cloud of vapor that was created from a release on our pipeline system," Heine said.
"All the men and women who are here today have a heavy heart. Last night was a sad event for us. Today is a sad day and we're grieving with the family."
The Magellan pipeline provides fertilizer in several Midwestern states. It starts near Borger, Texas, and travels through Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, with a branch that extends into Minnesota.
The majority of the pipeline, including the rupture, is underground, although it does come above ground near where the leak happened.
Anhydrous evaporates into a pungent gas with suffocating fumes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It causes rapid dehydration and severe burns when it combines with water in the body. Symptoms include burning eyes, nose and throat from breathing even small amounts. Higher exposure causes coughing or choking and death from a swollen throat or chemical burns to the lungs.