Several sickened, but no public alert after chemical leak in Hilo

A chemical leak at a facility in Hilo is raising questions about public safety.

A Hilo resident contacted Action Line, wanting to know why the neighborhood around BEI Hawaii’s facility was not alerted.

The resident told us the smell from the facility was so bad he couldn’t breathe. He also says plants in his yard and his neighbors’ yards turned brown from the odor.

Two workers and a firefighter had to be treated.

According to the Hawaii Fire Department, BEI’s monitoring system alerted employees of a chlorine gas leak at around 7 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 22. Readings at that time showed up to 2 parts per million.

“What is considered a dangerous level where you would notify the public?” KHON2 asked Jonathan Sullivan, BEI regulatory compliance officer.

“If it’s going over 2 parts per million,” he replied.

Less than an hour later, BEI called the fire department. Fire officials say by the time crews arrived, employees were being evacuated.

Fire officials say BEI had placed the 120-pound cylinder chlorine gas tank in a containment vessel or coffin, but the leak didn’t stop.

“As we got closer to the coffin area, about 20 feet from the coffin, we had a reading of about .1 parts per million, which is well below an actionable levels,” said Battalion Chief Gerald Kosaki.

But when the hazmat team checked the readings an inch away from the source, it read more than 30 parts per million.

To stop the leak, the tank was submerged in water.

“It was best to put it in a vat of water and what that does is prevent the gas from escaping,” said Sullivan.

No one could tell us how much gas leaked, but it took an hour and a half for hazmat to contain it.

Sometime overnight, the situation worsened. The fire department was called back again at about 6:30 a.m. Friday.

Nearly three hours after hazmat crews arrived, a reading of 10 parts per million about 10 to 15 feet from the source was logged.

“Why wouldn’t that trigger a notification to the public?” KHON2 asked.

“I agree in hindsight, we should have made a public notification that there was an ongoing incident,” Kosaki admitted, “because of the nature of the chemical and just to notify them — although we’re not evacuating anybody at this time — that we are just notifying them in the event that the incident should escalate and they would need to be evacuated. So I agree, we should have in hindsight do a public notification on this incident.”

Kosaki says the perimeter of the facility was well below the levels requiring any action, which is why the department did not issue a public alert about the chlorine leak.

But resident Glen Baldado says he couldn’t stay in his own home because the odor was so strong, and he ended up in the emergency room.

“I started coughing a lot and kind of like vomiting and I couldn’t breath,” he told KHON2. “I couldn’t stay in the house, only a few seconds.”

Kosaki says firefighters canvassed the neighborhood late Friday afternoon and spoke with several residents, though not everyone was approached.

An evacuation center was set up by Civil Defense, but never used.

The Hawaii Department of Health says BEI is handling the material for proper disposal, and the company is required to submit a detailed report within 30 days of the incident.

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