Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

INDIA-ENVIRONMENT: Alarm Bells Go Off on Polluting Refineries

Bijoy Basant Patro

NEW DELHI, Sep 19 1997 (IPS) - Two massive oil fires in the south Indian port city of Visakhapatnam have raised questions about the safety and environmental standards in India’s petroleum industry.

Early on Sep. 14, fire engulfed four LPG tanks at the refinery of the state-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (HPCL) and spread to adjoining bunkers of the Indian Oil Corporation, also government-owned, killing an estimated 51 people.

Two days later, kerosene oil tankers at the busy Visakhapatnam port burst into flames, adding to the atmospheric pollution over the heavily industrialised, coastal city. A number of big refineries, steel and fertiliser plants are located in Andhra Pradesh state’s biggest port city.

Environmentalists and the government’s own pollution monitoring agencies have been warning that a tragedy was waiting to happen in Visakhapatnam.

But the Petroleum Ministry remains obsessed with the impact of the accidents on the country’s oil reserves, brushing aside questions on the levels of safety in Indian industry and the concern for the environment.

“Petroleum products, especially liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene will be imported to cover the loss in the fire and the unplanned shutdown of the refinery,” a Petroleum Ministry official said immediately after the fire broke out.

HPCL which first attributed the fire to an accident, has revised its statement to claim that “sabotage could not be ruled out”, even as investigations into the cause of the fire have begun.

The blaze at HPCL was the second incident in the last year. Last November three people were killed in a fire accident.

Visakhapatnam is among India’s 24 problem areas identified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), an advisory body. But refineries like the HPCL plant and other petroleum installations are not subject to a clearance from the pollution certification authorities like the CPCB or the state pollution control boards.

In 1994, a team of CPCB scientists had identified the HPCL plant among four biggest polluting industries in the city. In July this year, a team of CPCB scientists reviewed the safety regulations at the refinery. P.A.B. Raju, a deputy general manager of the HPCL told the CPCB team that HPCL had installed the minimum infrastructure to contain pollution.

But the CPCB team was not convinced. Senior scientist and analyst, R.S. Mahwar suspects that “HPCL did not run these infrastructure because it was proving very expensive.”

That the HPCL refinery management was not serious about ensuring safety regulations is obvious from the fact that they did not provide the state pollution control board (SPCB) with a environmental statement for the last year.

Before returning from Visakhapatnam, the CPCB team had directed the HPCL to submit its environmental statement for the last year to the SPCB within two weeks.

Refineries and petroleum exploration projects in India are exempt from environment impact assessments. All that the petroleum industry has to do is submit a risk analysis to the Department of Mines before commencing work. The risk analysis is limited to a cursory disaster management system, which essentially entails informing officials, ensuring evacuation and a continuous alert for saboteurs.

Following its installation, the industry has to provide the state pollution control board with a yearly environmental statement.

India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had warned in 1994 that the HPCL refinery’s design was inherently flawed and it endangered the lives of the people working in it as well as those living in its surroundings in the Malkapuram industrial zone.

“The Malkapuram cluster has five industries involving fire and explosion hazards due to LPG and propylene … The one which calls for maximum attention is hazard from the HPCL refinery,” the NEERI report had warned.

But little attention was paid to the NEERI report, primarily because the people living in the immediate surroundings were poor slum-dwellers who depended on the refinery for their living. The NEERI report also mentioned the lack of medical and emergency facilities to tackle a blaze like on Sunday.

Last Sunday, HPCL did not even have sufficient fire fighting

material. After the fire broke out, 10,000 tonnes of fire- extinguishing foam was flown in from Baroda, more than 2,000 km away in western India.

NEERI director P. Khanna says, “HPCL may say it was a human error, or anything. But not only were systems to deal with an accident of this nature not in place, even the preliminary studies undertaken before embarking upon the exploratory exercise were grossly inadequate.”

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