One worker killed, four others hospitalized after toxic gas exposure at a sugar plant in Fort Morgan

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Western Sugar plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, Oct. 5, 2023.

One person was killed and four others were hospitalized after being exposed to toxic hydrogen sulfide gas at a sugar plant in northeastern Colorado, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office said.

In an emailed statement, Heather Luther, the vice president for Western Sugar Cooperative, told CPR News the employees were performing routine maintenance at a utility building near the sugar plant in Fort Morgan when they were “unexpectedly exposed” to “naturally occurring” hydrogen sulfide fumes.

Four employees and two first responders were treated at a local hospital, where one of the workers later died. Another was taken to a Denver hospital and is expected to be released later this week, Luther said.

A media update from the sheriff’s office sent Thursday further noted the two firefighters and one Western Sugar employee were treated and released. 

“The situation is contained, with no ongoing risk to our employees or the facility,” Luther said. “We are mourning the loss of one of our maintenance team members and extend our thoughts and prayers to his family, friends, and colleagues

Hydrogen sulfide is a flammable, colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs. It occurs naturally in fossil fuels and from the breakdown of organic matter. A few breaths of the toxin can be deadly, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin said the county ambulance service and volunteer firefighters initially responded to the Western Sugar Processing Facility following a report of an unconscious person. While traveling to the scene of the incident, the first responders learned a second person was unconscious. 

Firefighters rescued two Western Sugar employees from a “confined space approximately 10 feet below ground surface.” 

In an initial press release sent Wednesday, the sheriff's office said two firefighters were exposed to a hazardous chemical during the rescue operation. The firefighters and two employees were transported and treated at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Fort Morgan. 

The cause of death is now under investigation, which the Morgan County Sherriff’s Office said requires lab work that will likely take weeks.