Union Carbide plant closed after leak
October 19, 2000, Thursday, United Press International

By RAVI R. PRASAD

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Oct. 18: A Union Carbide chemical plant was closed following the leakage of some poisonous gas from the factory on the outskirts of the capital Colombo. Authorities of Ja-Ela, some 20 miles north of the capital, ordered Union Carbide Lanka to close operations at the chemical plant after the emission of poisonous fumes from the factory Monday.

The local authorities took action against the a subsidiary of U.S.-based Union Carbide group, after receiving complaints from residents about respiratory disorders, burning of eyes and loss of hair.

Residents gathered at the factory and attacked Union Carbide officials, who were trying to pacify the crowd. The managing director of Union Carbide Lanka, Gamini Gunasekara, and several others were injured in the violence. Gunasekera told United Press International that the leak was an accident because of an employee's fault. The employee, he said, had poured ethyl acrylate into the water treatment plant.

"As the vapors spread people complained of uneasiness and breathing problems, so we ourselves shut down operations. The local authorities then sent us a letter to close the factory," Gunasekera said.

Local newspaper and television channels compared the incident to that of Bhopal in India where thousands of people died and many continue to suffer because of the leakage of methyl isocyanide from the Union Carbide plant in 1984.

Newspapers quoted residents of Je Ela saying that more than 1,000 people sought medical treatment after Monday's leakage. Doctors said that most of those brought to Ja Ela hospital or the national hospital were suffering from respiratory disorders.

Drinking water in Ja Ela, newspapers said, had been polluted because of the effluent discharged from Union Carbide factory. "People have to go a long way to fetch safe drinking water," a report said.

Environmentalists are demanding complete closure of the Union Carbide unit, which manufactures adhesives, paints, emulsions and resins. They have urged the Central Environment Authority to conduct another environmental impact assessment of the factory before allowing to start the operation.