Wednesday’s chlorine gas leak at Mumbai Port Trust’s yard in Sewri was a litmus test for the agencies involved in disaster management, but they managed only a slipshod job, and the leak had to be finally plugged with the help of private chemical companies.
The poor level of preparedness was borne out by the lack of even basic amenities and equipment required to handle such situations. For one, the road leading to the dock is in such bad shape that a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation vehicle responding to the emergency got stuck in a puddle along the way. Construction of the alternative road to the dock is yet to be completed. As a result, agencies could reach the spot far later than they could have.
Worse still, both the Mumbai Fire Brigade, and especially the one operated by the port, are not equipped to handle a disaster like this.
The leak was first noticed at around 4am by an on-duty security guard, who rushed to his cabin to call the fire station, located in the same yard. However, when MbPT firemen reached the spot, they realised that it was a chlorine leak, which they did not have the required equipment to deal with.
The Mumbai Fire Brigade was summoned for help, which, too, was not geared up to tackle the situation, and began spraying water on the chlorine cylinder as a routine exercise.
When senior fire officials realised this measure was not enough, they contacted private chemical companies like Herdillia Chemicals, Century Rayon, and RCF for guidance. Safety officers from these companies reached the yard after about five hours and took stock of the situation. Soon after, Ulhas Thakur, safety manager of Herdillia Chemicals, plugged the kleak.
Meanwhile, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was contacted. A specialised NDRF team, stationed at its base in Talegaon, reached the spot by 12.30pm with a self container breather (SCB) to neutralise the chlorine in the cylinder. But when MbPT officials were asked to provide a crane and weigh machine to reach the cylinder, all they could do was bring in a private crane, but one which did not have a weigh machine. Finally, Century Rayon officers called their own weigh machine from their plant in Shahad, Kalyan. The machine arrived at around 2.30pm, and only then could the NDRF start its work.
MbPT officials booked
“The police have filed a case against MbPT authorities under sections 284, 308, 324 and 337 of the Indian Penal Code (pertaining to negligence in dealing with poisonous substances and culpable homicide not amounting to murder), along with sections 7, 8, 9 and 15 of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (mishandling of hazardous substances),” said senior police inspector Rajan Bhogle of Sewri police station.
Union cries foul, says safety steps inadequate
umbai Port Trust workers have blamed the company for the incident. The Transport and Dock Workers Union, a representative body of dock workers, has demanded that all unclaimed hazardous goods lying inside the dock premises should be immediately cleared. RM Murthy, the union secretary, said such hazardous cargo posed maximum threat to the workers. Several of those being treated in hospitals are dock workers. At least 13 contract labourers, who were working within 50 metres of the spot where the cylinder leaked, are among those who fell ill. Four are in the critical care unit at JJ hospital.
K Mohan, who was present when the incident occurred, said that the gas began leaking around 3.20am. “Since I was closest to the site, I raised an alarm after sensing something amiss. We had already inhaled gas by the time we came out.” Mohan has been working at the dock as a loader for more than two decades. He complained about the lack of safety equipment. “There are no smoke detection alarms or fire alarms.”
Permission to dispose of cylinders sought 2 yrs ago
he Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) might not be the only agency to be blamed for the debacle. Though there is no denying that the port trust had delayed in disposing of the cylinders, other agencies too are to be blamed. A senior MbPT official said that permissions had been sought at least two years ago from the controller
of explosives and customs to dispose of (auction) the consignment comprising 105 cylinders. “The clearance is still to arrive,” the official said. The consignment belonged to a private firm — port trust officials identified it as Agro Gases Pvt Ltd — and it was brought in the dock in April 2001. The official said that the firm never claimed the consignment after the customs department raised some objections. According to government rules, the port trust can penalise a firm if it does not claim a consignment within a month of it being unloaded at the dock. Also, the port trust can auction a consignment if it is not claimed within six months.