State, county sued over BEI Hawaii gas leak

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald BEI Hawaii’s facility in Hilo

A supervisor for BEI Hawaii in Hilo who suffered lung injuries as a result of a chlorine gas leak at the facility two years ago is suing the county and state for negligence, claiming response to the leak was inadequate.

The civil suit was filed Sept. 14 in Hilo Circuit Court by Honolulu attorneys Woody Soldner and Mike Cruise on behalf of Lucas Parrish, his wife, Melina Parrish, and the couple’s two teenagers. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

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Lucas Parrish suffered what the suit describes as “severe and permanent” lung damage.

Cruise said Parrish has been unable to work since inhaling chlorine from the leak.

“He was working to support his family before, and it’s been a rough couple of years,” Cruise said. “He’s very depressed. He wants to be back working, supporting his family and playing ball with his kids and fulfilling the role he’s had before.

“It’s been hard on them emotionally because his role has changed so drastically. It’s been hard on them economically because his income has dropped, obviously. It’s been difficult.”

According to the suit, the leaking chlorine cylinder was discovered the morning of Sept. 22, 2016, by BEI employees, who aren’t trained to respond to chemical leaks. The employees put the cylinder into a “‘salvage vessel’ that is designed to contain a leaking chlorine cylinder to prevent the gas from releasing into the environment,” the suit states, but the vessel failed to contain the leak.

The Hawaii Fire Department dispatched its HAZMAT unit to the Kekuanaoa Street agricultural and industrial chemical warehouse in response to a 7:58 a.m. call about the leak. The county “assumed control” of the scene at about 10:34 a.m., the filing claims.

County officials then sought guidance from the state, according to the suit, and the state allegedly told the county to place the leaking cylinder and salvage vessel into a tub of water “to prevent the gas from escaping into the air.”

By noon, the county told BEI the leak was contained and the scene was safe, the suit claims. The salvage vessel continued to corrode, however, because of the chlorine and water, causing the leak to grow overnight, according to the complaint.

When Parrish returned to work at approximately 6:30 a.m. the following day, he allegedly “was exposed directly to high levels of chlorine gas … resulting in severe and permanent damage to his lungs.”

Parrish was treated at the Hilo Medical Center emergency room and has “been seeing a pulmonologist on Oahu since then,” Cruise said.

Effects of the leak were felt beyond the facility. Glen Baldado, an emergency room technician living across the street from BEI, told the Tribune-Herald in September 2016 that he visited his workplace as a patient because he was “coughing and gagging.”

Officials didn’t alert the community about the leak, something Baldado said should’ve been done.

The Parrishes sued the cylinder’s manufacturer, JCI Jones Chemicals Inc., a New York corporation, last year. That suit is still active in federal court in Honolulu.

“The cylinder that leaked shouldn’t have leaked, bottom line. So we sued the packager of the chlorine, JCI,” Cruise said. “In that course of that case, it became apparent in responding to the leak, the county and the state may have made the problem worse.”

According to Cruise, BEI isn’t a party to the litigation because it isn’t a responder to chemical leaks, so there “appears to be no basis” to sue them.

Cruise said there are still ongoing medical and financial issues to be resolved, and he can’t yet place a dollar figure on what a fair settlement of the lawsuit would be.

“The main purpose of the case is to make sure the Parrishes are taken care of and not being left in a bad spot,” he said. “The other, of course, is that the result of the lawsuit would make it less likely that these things would happen again to the extent that it did. The leak happened, but more people were exposed to the chlorine than should’ve been. That includes Lucas, obviously, but it also escaped into the neighborhood. Leaks need to not happen, but responses need to be improved, as well … so if these circumstances arise again in the future, then nobody gets hurt.”

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Representatives of the state Attorney General and the county Corporation Counsel said they haven’t been served with the suit and can’t comment about its allegations.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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