EDISON, NJ—Two men were injured after 200 gallons of a hazardous substance leaked from the LyondellBasell facility on Meadow Road, leaving a chemical smell in the air above a neighborhood on the night of August 23.
The Titanium tetrachloride was released “due to a broken pipe within their facility,” according to Deputy Chief of the Edison Fire Department Andy Toth, who noted the time of the incident was 8:27pm.
But, for more than an hour, the Township did not express to residents that there was any potential danger in the air on places like Clifton Street.
Firefighters quickly descended on the scene, hosing down the two victims in the parking of the Elixir Bar on Woodbridge Avenue, and blocking access to the industrial area where the incident occurred.
According to the NJ Department of Health’s Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, the chemical is “a colorless to pale yellow liquid” that is both “CORROSIVE” and “REACTIVE,” and “can severely irritate and burn the skin and eyes with possible eye damage.”
Firefighters were told not to use water near the location because it could react with the chemical to make even more harmful.
So, the two victims were taken to the Elixir Bar parking lot to escape the chemicals. There they were sprayed down by firehouses before being rolled on stretchers into ambulances.
Toth said the victims worked at “a business across the street” from the LyondellBasell facility.
By 8:51pm, an alert had gone out via the Township’s “Nixle” alert system saying “All residence are requested to stay away from the entire area of Meadow Rd due to fire activity.”
But firefighters on scene confirmed that there was no fire, but rather a “chemical leak” had occurred.
At 9:30pm reporter Carlos Ramirez began broadcasting live with that information and, minutes later, the Township quickly issued another, more serious alert, telling area residents to stay indoors and close their windows.
“Initial reports indicated that an evacuation was necessary, but that was quickly reduced to a shelter in place,” said Toth.
Toth did not immediately respond to our questions about why the shelter in place took so long to enact.
The shelter in place alert was in effect for 29 minutes, when the Township issued a third alert titled “Edison Residents no longer need to Shelter in place and CAN open their doors, windows and use their Air Conditioners.”
“Middlesex County HazMat Officials confirmed that the vapor cloud was dissipating as it was expected to do, and once the cloud was over 500 feet in circumference it was no longer a threat to anyone,” Toth said in a statement released after our inquiries to the Edison Police Department and Mayor.
“First Responders on Meadow Road were not required to wear protective breathing equipment,” Toth noted. “The shelter in place was a protective call to be safe as the cloud fully dissipated.”
Even though Middlesex County’s Hazardous Materials team was involved, county officials did not substantively address the incident.
“I was not there and I’m not authorized by the county to speak to the media, sorry,” said John Ferguson, the head of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
“This incident is being handled by Edison OEM,” said the head of the county’s Communications apparatus. “They will be able to answer your questions.”
For his part, Toth encouraged residents to sign up for the Nixle service where the Township put out the three alerts.
“During an emergency event, Nixle is not used, nor intended to be, a press release,” wrote Toth. “Nixle is primarily used as an emergency notification tool to alert residents and businesses of an unplanned incident that may impact them. “
“Nixle messages are brief, understandable, and complete, making the time-sensitive point in as few words possible. Many people only choose to receive Nixle through SMS (text), which significantly limits the information that may be transmitted.”
The Netherlands-based company responsible for the facility where the chemicals escaped did not immediately respond to our questions about the incident or how it can assure the safety of Edison residents in the future.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.