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Local, Federal Agencies Clear Gainesville Poultry Plant To Reopen After Chemical Leak

Hall County Fire Services Division Chief Zach Brackett, shown Jan. 28, said in a statement: “Hall County Fire Services cannot speak for other agencies. However, there are no prohibitions to operations at Foundation Food Group from Hall County Fire Services.”
Hall County Fire Services Division Chief Zach Brackett, shown Jan. 28, said in a statement: “Hall County Fire Services cannot speak for other agencies. However, there are no prohibitions to operations at Foundation Food Group from Hall County Fire Services.”
Credit John Bazemore / Associated PRess
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Updated at 12:40 p.m. Monday

Local and federal agencies have cleared a Gainesville poultry plant, the site of a fatal liquid nitrogen leak last month, to reopen.

The leak on Jan. 28 killed six workers and injured about a dozen others. More than 100 people were evacuated from the building.

An inspection by Hall County Fire Services days after the chemical leak found exit signs that didn’t light up, doors blocked by machinery and noncompliant fire extinguishers. A follow-up inspection on Feb. 11 found the violations were resolved.

Hall County Fire Services declined an interview with WABE. In a statement, Fire Services Division Chief Zach Brackett said the building is allowed to reopen.

“Hall County Fire Services cannot speak for other agencies. However, there are no prohibitions to operations at Foundation Food Group from Hall County Fire Services,” said Brackett.

Advocates say employees of the Foundation Food Group aren’t confident that the plant is safe to go back to. On Monday, activists held a solidarity caravan to support employees at the plant. 

In a letter addressed to local, state and federal officials, including the Georgia Department of Public Health, the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, advocates are calling for further inspection before the plant reopens.

“Workers want to return to work,” the letter reads, saying that some workers have gone without pay since the nitrogen leak. “But the economic reasons for returning to work should not take precedence over their lives, health and safety.”

OSHA is also investigating the incident. According to records from the agency, the plant had several violations over the past several years, including two amputations in 2017. According to a Department of Labor spokesperson, “OSHA does not have the authority to order the closing of a worksite or to order affected employees to leave the area of imminent danger or the workplace.”

In addition to Hall County Fire Services, federal investigators at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have also cleared the building to reopen. Investigators have linked the nitrogen link to a chicken conveyer. According to the board, the conveyer had “unresolved operational issues.” 

A full investigation could take years. 

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board says it’s now up to the Foundation Food Group to craft a reopening plan.  

Foundation Food Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment about when the plant will start up again.