No improvement in process safety regulations almost 40 years after Bhopal: Report

The report, by Scientists for People gave the damning indictment after having looked into an explosion that occurred in Nellore May 11 this year

By Vivek Mishra
Published: Tuesday 22 June 2021
The styrene gas leak at a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh in May this year

Read about the Vizag, Dahej and Neyveli blasts that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown herehere and here

Read Down To Earth's coverage of 30 years of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy here

There have been no improvements in process safety regulations across India even as the country is set to mark 40 years of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy in three years, according to a new report. Process safety regulations are an integral part of maintaining the safety of workers, the public and the environment.

In fact, several accidents have occurred in chemical and active substance processing factories during the last two years in which several workers have died, the report, released on June 19, 2021, noted.

One of them happened in Chandrapadia village in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district. On May 11, 2021, a massive fire broke out at the Venkat Narayan Active Ingredients Pvt Ltd (VNAI)’s bulk drug chemical unit. Four factory workers died in the accident.

According to preliminary investigation by state officials, the accumulation of methanol vapours in a room and sparks in the SSR / 120 reactor led to the charging of isopropyl acidel urea powder. This resulted in the fire and explosion.

However, the expert committee that drafted the report rejected the possibility of a methanol explosion in the room. It further stated that the explosion happened due to hybrid dust and vapour explosions.

The report said:

All the evidence corroborates that it was a hybrid dust or vapour explosion and not a methanol explosion. It is very unfortunate that even four decades after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, process safety regulations have not improved.

In the 1980 and 1990s, explosions in the grain dust units of grain processing factories were very common in the United States and Europe. Oxygen, fuel source, the mixture in air, combustion source, minimum concentration, dried dust and narrow space are the seven factors that cause this type of explosion.

Similar conditions led to the hybrid dust explosion in Andhra Pradesh, according to the report.

The report concluded:

The unit didn’t have enough workforce to ensure safety. Knowledge regarding process safety and skill development are being ignored during the investigation. Since the Styrene gas release accident which occurred last year, we have not seen any sound scientific investigation or inspection report. This is despite the fact that such accidents frequently happen in Andhra Pradesh.

Two similar accidents have occurred at VNAI within a span of nine months. Both were due to a lack of safety regulation and its implementation.

Companies do not care about the lives of the workers. There isn’t any standard provision for compensating workers who die while working in such factories. Accident investigation reports are not released in the public domain, which is completely against the rules, the report said.

Bhaskar Rao Vemuri had filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against VNAI. The petition claimed agricultural water was being used for running the unit at Chandrapadia.

On June 2, the NGT took note of the preliminary investigation report that had said the explosion was a methanol one.

It ordered a fresh report from a joint committee comprising of the Central Pollution Control Board, chief inspector of factories Andhra Pradesh, member secretary, State Pollution Control Board and the district magistrate of Nellore.

The committee has been asked to submit its report on the explosion within the next three months. The next hearing is scheduled for October.  

After the country-wide lockdown from March 2020-March 2021, more than 12 such industrial accidents have occurred.

The report released June 19 was prepared by Scientists For People. It was prepared by former chief scientist K Babu Rao, VG Rao (Professor IIT- Mumbai) and former scientist Venkat Reddy.

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