West Bengal bans ammonia use as refrigerant

State pollution board’s decision comes after three gas leaks hit Kolkata

By J Basu
Published: Friday 25 February 2011

West Bengal has imposed a ban on use of ammonia as refrigerant. The decision by the state pollution control board (SPCB) on January 20 follows three ammonia gas leaks from cold storage facilities which hit Kolkata and its fringe areas between December-end and January this year.

According to Prabuddha Nath Roy, chairperson of SPCB, industries using ammonia as coolant may either have to shift to the less dangerous gas, chlorodifluoromethane, commonly known as HCFC 22, or shut their operations starting May. More than 1,000 units in Kolkata use ammonia, of which only about 250 are registered with SPCB. Ammonia release can cause respiratory problems in people. Prolonged exposure can prove fatal. On February 24, West Bengal cold storage association met SPCB officials requesting extension of the May deadline.

Biswajit Mukherjee, chief law officer of SPCB, said, “We have asked municipalities not to give licence to any ice plant or cold storage unless they shift to HCFC 22.” Panchayats and zila parishads have also been directed not to issue permission to units using ammonia unless they obtain prior clearance from the board, he added.

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But many feel the shift from ammonia to HCFC 22 may not be a permanent solution as it is cost intensive and may force smaller units either to shut down or use ammonia on the sly.

One person died and 30 others were admitted to hospital on December 31 after ammonia gas leaked from an ice factory at Mohanpur in North 24 Parganas district. Many people complained of uneasiness and started vomiting. People were evacuated from a 500 metre area around the factory as a precautionary measure. Within ten days, another leak was reported. It occurred in Maniktala area of north Kolkata. No casualties were reported. The last leak, which occurred in populated Nagerbazar area of Dum Dum in northern Kolkata, caused widespread panic and people fled the area. Seventy people fell ill after inhaling ammonia gas.

All the three units were operating without the mandatory approval from the pollution board. “The three units did not have the mandatory fire and other accident fighting mechanisms,” said Gopal Bhattacharya, director general of the state fire service. Siddhartha Dutta, pro-vice chancellor of Jadavpur University in West Bengal, alleged: “Our disaster management mechanism is not equipped to deal with such incidents.” “We can counter fire, but it is a fact that we are hardly trained or equipped to tackle such leaks,” admitted Bhattacharya.

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