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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chlorine gas leaks at Mumbai Port - the uncomfortable questions ??

Dear (s)

It was bad news of leakage of chlorine gas at the Mumbai Port Trust warehouse at Hay Bunder near Sewri. Over hundred fell sick, some reported critical sending shock waves of panic among the residents and port workers. Those affected complained of breathlessness, nausea and coughing fits.

The tragedy of Dec 3, 1984 at Bhopal was of a different magnitude. It was leakage from a storage tank containing methyl isocyanate at the Union Carbide pesticide plant – that the victims got measly compensation and Anderson could not be brought to book are different stories altogether.  If it were to be a mere accident affecting more than 120 which includes students of a nearby maritime college, labourers, port workers and fire fighters – none can be blamed but lessons will have to be learnt to ensure prevention of any recurrence. But as usual there is element of callousness and neglect which has caused. It is now reported that the cylinder which leaked was part of 140 such canister which have been lying abandoned with no precautions for ages, waiting for a disaster to happen to make authorities wake up. Now after the incident MBPT reportedly has launched enquiry on finding out why the cargo was left exposed in such a careless manner. 

Times of India report suggests that these cylinders had been abandoned by an importer over a decade ago in 1997 and were found corroded. The leakage affected residences and other buildings situate within radius of 1 km.   Chlorine (from Greek meaning pale green) is the chemical element with atomic no. 17 and symbol Cl. As chloride ion, it is abundant in nature and necessary to most forms of life, including humans. In its elemental form, it is a powerful oxidant used in bleaching and disinfectants; its compounds are used in swimming pools to keep them clean and sanitary. Quite often, in Public pools users would complain of red eyes and skin itching when chlorine is excessive. Municipal Corporation uses I as disinfectant in roads and is mixed in some measure in Corporation supplied drinking water that comes in taps. But all that only when diluted.
The German Army reportedly first used chlorine gas cylinders in Apr 1915 against French army at Ypres. The French soldiers smelt mixture of pine apple and pepper, later had to complain about pains in chests and burning sensation in throats. Concentrated chlorine gas would destroy the respiratory organs of its victims and could lead to slow death by asphyxiation. Masks of cotton pad soaked in ammonia would neutralize chlorine.

Cylinders in huge quantity of massive size have lying idle and nobody seemingly cared all these days. Mumbai Port Workers blamed the company demanding now that all unclaimed hazardous goods inside the dock premises be cleared off immediately. Being a Port, there are lowly paid contract labourers who could ill afford treatment nor the time at hospital which would prevent them from gaining wages. The Port on its part stated that permissions had been sought 2 yeas earlier for disposal from the Controller of Explosives and Customs and the clearance was yet to be given. One report stated that a firm called Agro Gases P Ltd had imported, the consignment landed at dock inApr 2001; the firm did not claim the consignment after some objections were raised.

Reacting after the incident, the Mumbai Police has registered a case against unknown persons under the Environment Protection Act. The charges included in the First Information Report (FIR) are attempt to commit culpable homicide, causing hurt by dangerous weapon, negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance and endangering life or personal safety of others. Whether the probe would identify any persons, only time would reveal. The difficult clean up operations were on and cylinders containing chlorine are being neutralised. A team of experts of National Disaster Response Force arrived from Pune for safe disposal of the remnant cylinders

The age old Customs Act of 1962 clearly provides for clearance of goods. Sec 48 reads that ‘if any goods brought into India are not cleared for home consumption or warehoused or transhipped within 30 days from the date of unloading or within such further time as allowed, or if the title of any imported goods is relinquished, such goods may, after notice to the importer and with the permission of proper officer be sold by the person having custody thereof "

Incidentally, even recently, the MBPT had advertised for e auction of uncleared/ unclaimed cargo to be conducted by Gandhi Auctioneers P Ltd. There are provisions to sell / dispose off / initiate action against the erring importers – but whether these do happen and why such delay and carelessness may perhaps remain ever unanswered.

Most unfortunately, it requires a serious accident to make Agencies spring into action and most times the lives of common man are not worth anything !!!

Regards - Sampathkumar S

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