Bhopal-Like Catastrophe Awaiting Thoothukudi

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Dangerous acids and chemicals stored in Sterlite Unit could lead to catastrophe.

A tragedy awaits Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu at the controversial Sterlite Copper plant owned by Vedanta. There were reports of a sulphuric acid leak that was detected on June 16 evening. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Vedanta, the holding company of Sterlite Copper, says at least eight tanks of sulphuric acid left unattended in its closed copper smelter plant could lead to a catastrophe.

The company also claimed that the June 16 sulphuric acid leak could have been an act of sabotage as there is minimal security posted at the unit. There have been alarming reports that radical elements were behind the agitation against the plant on May 22 in which 13 people were killed in police firing.

But nobody is bothered. If action is not taken immediately, there could be serious environmental consequences, the company warns. Nobody knows if this is a threat or a blackmail, but Thoothukudi Collector Sandeep Nanduri sticks to his earlier view that the leak was minor.

Since both versions are at variance, Tamil Nadu should appoint independent third party auditors comprising environmental and scientific experts to immediately access the situation at the plant. In India, we tend to act only after a tragedy occurs and then start a blame game.

Sterlite is a tragedy waiting to happen and this could be of the scale of the Union Carbide disaster that rocked Bhopal in 1984.

Vedanta now wants to immediately remove highly inflammable materials, hazardous chemicals and waste from the plant. For this, the company has petitioned the Madras HC (Madurai Bench) seeking immediate restoration of atleast basic electricity supply to Sterlite Copper.

“A continuous monitoring of the plant is necessary. If acid comes in contact with water, it will cause vigorous reactions,” the petition by Sterlite general manager (Legal) A. Satyapriya said. And if it rains heavily, water could enter the plant leading to a disaster.

The June 16 leak could not be arrested as the pipe flanges are submerged in the acid pool in the dykes around the storage tank. The acid needs to be cleared immediately, the petition said.

The petition alleged that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had failed to gauge the enormity of the issue and in a ‘knee-jerk reaction’. Without any prior notice, TNPCB ordered closure of the unit and disconnect power supply. The Board did not bother do an audit to verify if any production was on, the company claimed.

Without electricity, emergency support services such as fire hydrants, acid circulation pumps and other safety systems which store gases, liquids, oils, acids and resin cannot be operated. It would also not be possible to use storm and effluent water pumps, in case heavy rains were to flood the plant, the company said in its petition.

Vedanta claimed that the immediate shutdown posed a threat to the employees and the environment as machines, raw materials including hazardous chemicals and products were stored inside the plant complex.

Taking up the petition for hearing, a Division Bench of Justices C.T. Selvam and A.M. Basheer Ahamed adjourned the case to June 25 after Additional Advocate General K. Chellapandian sought time to get instructions in this regard.

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