One dead, 200 hurt by gas leak

From correspondents in Bhubaneswar, India
ONE person died and 200 others were treated for breathing problems after chlorine gas leaked from a water treatment plant in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, local officials and doctors said today.
The leak was plugged after it was detected in the town of Sambalpur, a railway employee’s colony, 300 kilometres west of Orissa’s state capital Bhubaneswar, late yesterday, a city official said.
“The situation is under control. The leak was detected and sealed by experts. There is no cause for panic,” said Raghunath Pradhan, a district magistrate in Sambalpur.
Most of the 200 injured suffered from breathing problems, eye irritation and severe nausea, doctors said, adding that 56 of the injured were in serious condition.
“Thank God for the midnight rain. It actually helped in soothing the atmosphere. Otherwise there could have been more problems,” Debashish Das, a resident of the town, said in a telephone interview.
Editor: The problem was foreseen years ago, witness the following article published in 1999. Anyone working on this problem please contact the editor of this website..
by Dhruba Das Gupta
Brajrajnagar Feb 13, 1999
Not a single worker of Orient Paper Mills in Brajrajnagar, working in the electrolysis bleaching (EB) plant, has lived for more than a year after retirement in the past four or five years, according to an officer in the mill. The workers there do not have adequate protection against chlorine gas leakage, which happens regularly.
It is common to see convoys of uncovered trucks carrying coal along the road to Brajrajnagar. Most of these are from the opencast mines.
The Ib Thermal Units (I&II) of the Orissa Power Generation Corp (OPGC) at Banharpalli have electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) to catch the dust from chimneys. But these ESPs are “unable to control the particulate level in the emission to the level prescribed by the pollution control board”. So flyash is a sticky problem.
Welcome to Brajrajnagar, situated in Jharsuguda district in Orissa.
The once-pristine Ib Valley is now host to a number of industries, all of which are responsible for one or more kinds of pollution. Itis currently the centre of a storm following the Orissa government’s decision to give the go-ahead to proposals to generate 10,000mw of power by companies like AES Corp., Consolidated Electric Power Asia (Cepa), Aditya Aluminium, Sterlite Industries and OPGC. This power is entirely for export, and the damage to the environment will be massive. The affected population spreads over three districts — Jharsuguda, Sambalpur and Sundargarh. The population of Brajrajnagar municipality itself was 70,000 as per the 1991 census.
Any effort to focus on the Ib Valley area throws up numerous instances of industrial pollution, and the starting point of this is easily Orient Paper Mills (OPM) of Brajrajnagar in Jharsuguda district.
Complaints against the mill, reeling under work suspension since January 2, are many. Situated on the bank of the river Ib, and functioning since 1939, the mill has been discharging effluents into the river, a major source of water for villagers upstream and downstream.
It drew rawmaterials extensively from the nearby bamboo and hardwood forests, thereby directly exploiting available forest resources. Inside the mill, workers are exposed to occupational hazards because the mill manufactures some of the chemicals that are used in making the pulp. Labour care is a neglected area because health check-ups are infrequent.
Water-borne diseases are a major problem in the area. Till 1989, there was no effluent treatment and water from the lagoons was released into the river directly. According to R C Das, ex-chairman of Orissa Pollution Control Board (OPCB), “Full-fledged land treatment (in the mill) is (being) followed for the last 3-4 years.”
The pipes that carry untreated water to the land treatment plant from lagoon no. 3 leak regularly. This happened for three days during investigations carried out by The Financial Express.
The mill uses chlorine for bleaching its pulp, and gas leaks are a common occurrence. Bleach plant effluents are a major source of toxicity. OPM usesmercury cell technology, which has been banned by the Supreme Court. This is because it is a polluting technology, which is being progressively replaced by membrane cell technology all over the world. In India, no new plant adopts mercury cell technology.
According to R C Das, “The pollution control board is aware of the fact that the mill uses mercury cell technology.” The reason why there has been no intervention is that the plant is small! But within the electrolysis bleaching plant, there have been many cases of mercury poisoning.The villagers upstream and downstream complain of malaria, diarrhoea, dehydration, a number of water-borne diseases, and skin diseases like scabies.
According to a report prepared by Ib Paribesh, an NGO working in the area for more than four years now, almost all the surface water has become unfit for human consumption. The contamination of groundwater resources has also reached a critical stage.
Villagers in Itabhatta, a village that is 2 km upstream from the point ofdischarge, are vociferous in their complaints. “Almost every house has a patient. Doctors advise us not to drink this water and to leave the village. Half our money goes to the doctors every month. But where will we go?” says Bhubno Khamari, ex-councillor in one of the wards of Brajrajnagar.
The villagers say that before the mill came up, the river water was clear and water from the wells suitable for drinking. Now, not even the wells (municipal and private) from which drinking water is drawn have clear water. An inspection of both kinds of wells by The Financial Express showed black water unfit for consumption, suggesting that the groundwater has been affected.
But the villagers here can use the river water at least for non-drinking purposes. In Kutabaga, a village about 3 kms downstream from the point of discharge, villagers cannot do even that. The Ib Paribesh report points out that the agricultural yield of the area has been tremendously reduced, and 23 slum pockets near the bank of the river arehighly affected by water pollution.
R C Das corroborates, “It is true that there are frequent complaints of clandestine discharge of effluent, at least partially, to the river Ib.” He should know. He was chairman of the State Pollution Control Board in two phases for eight years (September 1986 to July 1992 and August 1995 to December 1997).
Pollution Control Board sources also revealed that the wall of one of the lagoons broke down in 1997.
The in-patients register of the Employees State Insurance (ESI) hospital in Brajrajnagar shows a high incidence of water-borne diseases among villagers from Itabhatta, Chunabhatta, Ratakhandi and Kutabaga — all villages along the river — in the past four months.
There is also a flyash problem. The OPM residential area is close to the mill and dumping is a daily activity. According to OPM sources, the ESPs, which are meant to run continuously, stop functioning after 6 pm and the resulting flyash emissions affect the eyes of the nearby residents and graduallyspread over the entire Brajrajnagar.
Says a longtime resident of OPM colony, “Every day, the ESPs are switched off after 6 pm. It is impossible to move without glasses because of a burning sensation in the eyes.”
Incidentally, the ESPs of two of the boilers, which frequently become non-functional, were manufactured by Orient Engineering, which, OPM sources said, was the company’s first contract. Orient Engineering had no experience of manufacturing ESPs.
Labour care is at a minimum. There are a large number of cases of criminal negligence of chlorine gas leakage and mercury poisoning in their electrolysis bleaching (EB) plant.
The notices writ large in the EB plant read: “In case of chlorine gas leakage, report immediately.” But health check-ups are infrequent.
A senior medical officer, who is now at the ESI headquarters in Bhubaneswar and was posted in Brajrajnagar from 1993-96 as the seniormost at the ESI hospital, admits that cases of chlorine gas leakage were serious enough to demand herpersonal intervention on two occasions. Superintendents have also been frequent visitors to the hospital, the officer admitted.
The Regional Labour Institute unit in Calcutta, which oversees the eastern region, is empowered to deal with any case related to occupational health hazards in OPM. But information on public health is kept a closely guarded secret. RLI deputy director D K Das told The Financial Express that information could be disclosed only after permission from the Union Ministry of Labour!

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