Chlorine gas leak probed: Hilo plant incident alarms neighbors

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A joint investigation continues into the cause of a Sept. 22 chlorine gas leak at BEI Hawaii in Hilo.

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A joint investigation continues into the cause of a Sept. 22 chlorine gas leak at BEI Hawaii in Hilo.

“We don’t use chlorine for anything. We just bring it in and hold it for the customer,” Jonathan Sullivan, BEI regulatory compliance officer, said from his Oahu office.

Sullivan said BEI is working with the chlorine cylinder provider to figure out how the leak occurred at the company’s site at 430 Kekuanaoa St., part of what the company calls “the largest supplier of fertilizer, industrial and agricultural chemicals in Hawaii.”

Firefighters responded Sept. 22 to the BEI Hilo location to what neighbors considered an unpleasant but tolerable odor. However, hazardous materials experts returned overnight into early Friday morning, responding to continued leakage of the gas.

Glen “Bubba” Balbada, an emergency room technician who lives next door to BEI, said he asked a first responder what to do about the fumes in his house. That individual told him to open his windows to air things out.

“When I went through my garage, I started coughing already, coughing and gagging,” Balbada said. He took off his shirt to cover his face but said his chest started to burn. Firefighters suggested Balbada seek medical treatment. But, he said, “I was still kind of hard-headed.”

Eventually, though, he relented and went to Hilo Medical Center’s emergency room — this time as a patient instead of as a technician.

He was scrubbed, given an IV and released. But he has been surprised at the lasting psychological impact of worrying that the situation could have been worse, and about the possibility of a future chemical leak.

One of BEI’s Hilo employees also was taken to the emergency room and is continuing to recover after exposure to the gas. Sullivan said he has unconfirmed reports of two employees, a firefighter and a neighbor who needed medical assistance after being exposed. None were hospitalized.

Some residents, including Balbada, question why neighbors weren’t notified that a dynamic situation was unfolding and to be alert to possible exposure.

Balbada said community members need to be aware of the potential of chemical leaks and that officials should immediately notify nearby residents, even if the situation at first appears minor. If needed, officials then can expand the notification area to alert more residents.

“I’m not blaming anybody. But I just want them to know we’ve got a whole community,” he said. “It could have been a big disaster.”

But Sullivan said every situation is different and there wasn’t a serious threat to the neighbors because the cylinder that leaked the gas was placed in a vat of water, which kept the leak contained.

Officials did not send out a community alert.

“But they were preparing for the next step, if there was going to be a next step,” Sullivan said.

Balbada said he’s seen just about everything as an ER worker, and he’s used to seeing other people dealing with serious medical situations.

But this time, he said, “the plume went through my area.” He’s glad it affected a small number of people and wasn’t more widespread.

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Sullivan said BEI is in contact with the chlorine supplier and he expects BEI’s investigation into the cause of the leak to be complete within 30 days.

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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