Up in smoke

Long overdue, disaster finally struck the HPCL refinery at Vishakapatnam

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Fire tendes fight the blaze  a BLASTS followed by fire in four gas storage tanks of the public sector Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited ( hpcl ) Refineries at Visakhapatanam charred to death at least 25 people on the spot, injuring another 50, most of them Central Industrial Security Force ( cisf ) personnel on September 14. Many suffered 80 to 90 per cent burns. By the third day the death toll had reached 56.

"A massive explosion was heard at 6.26 am," said an Indian Navy spokesman from the nearby Eastern Naval Command base, from where nine fire tenders rushed to the spot. Reinforcements came from Rajamundry, an Oil and Natural Gas Commission, ( ongc ) base 240 km away, even as black soot and smoke turned the monsoon rains black. Despite 50 fire tenders, the fire continued late into night and three Indian Air Force ( iaf ) aircraft carrying anti-fire foam reached the spot at 11.30 pm. About 60,000 people fled their homes in Visakhapatanam, fearing a spread of the fire, according to hpcl officials. Most of them were sheltered in 20 relief centres.

The accident was long overdue. A report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute ( neeri ) had warned that the hpcl plant called for maximum attention, citing its great fire potential two years ago. "Repeated warnings regarding lax safety had gone unheeded, said M V R Prasada Rao, president of the Vishakha Refinery Petroleum Workers' Union. According to Rao the 700-strong union was preparing to take hpcl to the Andhra Pradesh High Court for "criminal negligence and disregard of safety norms".

The fire started after a gas leak, according to a hpcl spokesperson. Preliminary estimates put the loss at Rs 1,000 crore. The four tanks on fire contained 3,000 to 10,000 kilolitres of liquefied petroleum gas ( lpg) . A five-member high-level committee headed by the Chairman of Cochin refineries Ltd, K L Kumar has begun a probe into the blast.

The probe is expected to expose safety lapses. Going by the neeri report, hpcl area was a danger zone. "The most fatal area" in the case of an accident came under a 600-metre radius comprising the hpcl and the Indian Oil Corporation Ltd ( ioc ) terminals, the road to the city and residential areas. The hpcl storage include 50,000 tonnes of naphtha, and 12,000 tonnes of lpg . The ioc stores 35,000 tonnes of petrol and 7,000 tonnes of aviation fuel. Industries around the area store thousands of tonnes of acids and other chemicals. Local environmentalist Shivaji Rao said: ""We have been warning for years that a calamity here will make the Bhopal tragedy look small.""

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