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Federal investigators begin probe of latest BP explosion:

DINA CAPPIELLO, PEGGY O’HARE and THAYER EVANS, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, JULY 29, 2006
TEXAS CITY – Federal investigators expect to be on the scene by midday today to begin a probe into Thursday’s explosion at BP’s Texas City plant, the second such incident this year.
Smoke and flames again erupted there early Thursday evening, shaking windows and testing nerves still raw from an explosion four months ago that ranked as one of the deadliest refinery accidents in U.S. history.
No injuries were reported in Thursday’s blast, which occurred about 6 p.m. in a part of the sprawling 1,200-acre complex far removed from the unit that exploded in March. BP spokesman Neil Geary said there was no connection between the two incidents.
“It’s nowhere near as bad as the one a few months ago,” said lifelong Texas City resident Mike Martin, who stepped outside of his house to see smoke.
The company would not speculate about the cause of the explosion Thursday night.
The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board is sending a two-man team to study the damage. Investigators Giby Joseph and Francisco Altamirano, will meet with plant officials to get more details about the accident..
All fires stemming from the explosion Thursday evening at BP’s Texas City plant were extinguished early this morning, and all employees are accounted for, officials said today.
Air monitoring in the area continues, but authorities said this morning no harmful substances have been detected as a result of the explosion, and a precautionary “shelter in place” request issued after the blast Thursday was lifted overnight.
Gloria Randle, who lives near 6th Avenue North and 9th Street South, said she was cleaning her fingernails and waiting for Wheel of Fortune to come on television when she heard the blast, which some residents said sounded like thunder.
“All of a sudden, I heard a boom. A real big boom,” said Randle, a Texas City native who estimates she lives less than a mile from the BP plant. “I thought al-Qaida was here. I did, I’m not going to lie.”
Her son Nathan Randle, who was working about five blocks away from the plant, said, “I was like, here it goes again.”
Nearly two hours after the blast, the wind shifted, prompting BP and Texas City officials to recommend that residents living nearby remain indoors, close all windows and turn off air-conditioning units. That recommendation was lifted earlier this morning.
Although monitoring conducted by the company and the city’s hazardous materials team detected no pollution past the company’s fences, the company said there was a risk of hydrogen sulfide gas in the smoke and haze.
The gas, which smells of rotten eggs, can cause headaches, fatigue and eye irritation when people are exposed at low doses, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Don Thompson, regional director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that from what he saw on television, pollution did not appear to be a problem.
“You have white steam,” he said. “White steam means it’s clean.”Despite the assurances, Ruby Luna, who lives less than a quarter mile from the facility, said she experienced symptoms from some kind of chemical.
“We’ve started getting real strong headaches, because of the smell,” she said. “It’s bad. It’s gassy, and there are a lot of chemicals.”
BP emergency response crews, assisted by the Texas City Fire Department, Chocolate Bayou Emergency Response Team and personnel from the nearby Valero and Marathon plants, said they had the fire contained to the unit and under control an hour after the blast. But it was still burning at 11 p.m., and BP officials said they expected the blaze to be snuffed by midnight.
Earlier in the night, Texas City Fire Chief Gerald Grimm said pipes containing fuel were rupturing and feeding the fire.
“We now believe we have additional fuel being provided to the fire,” Grimm said.
BP reported that all of the plant’s estimated 1800 workers had been accounted for.
“Whenever you have something happen at one of your facilities, you don’t want to see it happen. It’s something you feel bad about,” said Hugh Depland, a BP spokesman.
The latest incident comes as BP faces scrutiny for its environmental and safety record. The company leads the nation in refinery deaths during the last 10 years, with 22 since 1995. In 2003 and 2004, its Texas City refinery — built in 1934 and the third largest in the U.S.— had more than 100 accidental releases of air pollution, the most of any facility in the Houston area.
The company’s internal investigation into the March explosion, which killed 15 people and injured about 170, found that workers had made “surprising and deeply disturbing” mistakes during the startup of an octane-enhancing unit and that on numerous occasions the company failed to replace an antiquated piece of equipment that vented emissions into the atmosphere.
BP is still facing litigation brought by injured workers and families of the dead, which could cost the company as much as $700 million .
Ed Hartman, 66, who has lived in Texas City for 40 years, said he’d like to see the company improve its performance.
“There’s something going on out there that they can’t put their finger on,” he said.
Lucy Sullivan, who lives about two miles from BP’s complex, said, “If you live in the area, you just sort of take it in stride. … If there’s not a big flame, you just go about your business.” She said she felt her dining room floor shake.
When fully operational, the Texas City plant processes 3 percent of the nation’s crude oil supply. Each day its towers, tanks and pipes convert 460,000 barrels of oil.
The explosion occurred along a hydrogen line in a part of the refinery called the Resid Hydrotreating Unit, which removes sulfur from heavy crude oil.
The unit — one of 30 at the 1,200 acre site — was completed in 1984, after the refinery’s previous owner, Amoco, conducted years of study into how to get the most oil out of a barrel. It processes 60,000 barrels of oil per day and allows BP to convert 75 percent of a barrel of oil into useful products, according to a 1992 article in the Chicago Tribune.
It’s also responsible for a fair share of the company’s profits. In 1991, according to the Tribune report, the Texas City refinery made $75 million with high sulfur crude, out of a company total of $1.4 billion in profits.
Earlier this year, the unit was shut down for 12 days of maintenance.
And according to a press release, PROGNOST Systems Inc. was recently hired by BP to install a system in the hydrotreating unit that would “provide early warning of mechanical problems or changes in performance.”
It was unclear if these upgrades had any role in the explosion.
Chronicle reporters S.K. Bardwell, Tom Fowler, Bill Hensel, Anne Marie Kilday and Zeke Minaya contributed to this report.

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Air pollution: Tamil Nadu becoming second Bhopal

PAPRI SRI RAMAN
Chennai, June 7 (IANS) Environmental agencies in Tamil Nadu are demanding monitoring stations in heavily industrialised pockets after a study found air samples from the state among the most polluted in India.
The groups have urged the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to apply for central funds to set up volatile organic compounds (VOC) and sulphur gas monitoring stations in Manali, Mettur, Cuddalore, Tuticorin and other industrialised areas.
The demand came after two samples from Tamil Nadu, out of 21 air samples taken from various parts of India, were found to be among three most-polluted in a first-of-its-kind national study of toxic gases in ambient air.
The study, ‘Smoke Screen – Ambient Air Quality in India’, was released here by Magsaysay award winner V. Shantha of the Cancer Institute.
The samples were taken with the help of a ‘Bucket’ – a low-cost air sampling tool that contains a special plastic bag housed within a bucket. The bag serves as a container for the air sample, and is detached after the sample is taken and couriered to a laboratory in California.
‘The Bucket results confirm that many communities in Tamil Nadu are living in a slow-motion Bhopal. For years, the Pollution Control Board and the government have ignored complaints about nasty odours and health problems,’ said M. Nizamudeen, who works with Federation of Consumer Organisations of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (FEDCOT), an NGO.
‘We hope that the new government will be more responsive to people’s problems and utilise the fact that they (DMK) control the environment ministry at the centre to speed up the standards setting process and strengthen enforcement,’ said Nizamudeen, referring to the DMK-led government that took office last month.
An air sample from the open garbage burning site in Perungudi, on the city’s outskirts and positioned along the much-hyped IT corridor, contained the highest number of chemicals found in any Indian sample.
As many as 27 chemicals, including carcinogenic ones, at levels 34,782 and 2,360 times higher than those considered safe for residential air by the US Environmental Protection Agency were found in this sample.
A second sample taken from near the effluent discharge point into the Cauvery river by Chemplast Sanmar’s PVC plant near the Mettur dam site, about 600 km southwest of here, also qualified among the three most-polluted samples as it contained six cancer-causing chemicals in the 17 that were detected.
From the 21 samples taken from various locations in India, the study reported the presence of 45 chemicals, including 13 carcinogens. The report is unique for India as the study analysed air samples for 67 toxic VOCs and 20 sulphur compounds in the air.
Activists said none of the chemicals found in ambient air samples in Indis were systematically monitored and no standards exist for them despite evidence that many of the reported chemicals exert severe health effects.
In September 2004, the Supreme Court instructed the Central Pollution Control Board to set standards for toxic gases. In 1999-2000, the ministry of environment and forests set aside $7.5 million for monitoring and setting standards for toxic gases. However, neither task has been done so far.

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Tamilnadu supports the Bhopali padyatris

On 5 March 2006, ex-workers from Hindustan Lever’s now-closed mercury thermometer factory held a demonstration in solidarity with the Bhopalis on the 5th anniversary of their struggle against the multinational. They are demanding long-term health care and research, and livelihood rehabilitation. All workers were exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the workplace.
On 9 March, children (12 years and under) began their daily staging of a street play on pollution at the Besant Nagar beach.
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Young artists and supporters of Bhopal (our street play team – children from Orur Kuppam in Besant Nagar)
The five minute play talks about the sorry condition of the beach and the sea, and links it to the Bhopal padayatra and the incident through a commentary. At the end of the play, we request people to sign a banner.
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Our complete team inckuding adults (special – our banner with the march logo where people are signing, this banner will be sent to the Indian PM)
10 March: Today, 8 youth from We Feel Responsible will meet the Governor of Tamilnadu and deliver a piece of their minds and a banner with signatures addressed to the PM.
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A kid signing the banner in support the march
On 16 March, supporters of the Bhopal struggle will take out a rally in Chennai with actors in costumes enacting dance-dramas.
Chennai youth meet the Governor of Tamil Nadu demanding justice for Bhopal
Seven members of the Chennai based youth collective We Feel Responsible met the Governor of Tamil Nadu, Mr. Surjit Singh Barnala today. In a brief conversation which lasted about 15 minutes he was briefed about the Bhopal walk, the present situation in Bhopal and the purpose of our meeting with him.
We told him about the significance of the march and our stand on the issue as youth. He seemed pretty unperturbed and when we were briefing him about the demands he started with a story about him at the time of the disaster. He was at a jail “under arrest” (he did not tell us for what but I did some online search and am assuming that it was due to the Sikh Riots that ensued the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October1984) about 60kms from ground zero and he said he smelt something strange in the air and told the jailor about it but none of them realized until later that it was the gas from Union Carbide.
On the issue of compensation and health he said that UCC had already paid a heavy sum as compensation immediately and also built the best hospital in Madhya Pradesh. He appreciated our effort that went into the signature campaign for the petition to the Prime Minister and suggested that we present the banner with signatures to the PM directly as he was sure that it would not reach him if sent through him. He refused to sign on the petition.
We presented him some literature on Bhopal and a copy of ‘Closer to Reality’ a Bhopal film by the Delhi based youth group, We for Bhopal. He wished us all the best in our endeavor and promised to forward the petition to the Prime Minister.
A seven-member delegation including Anthony, Harini, Saravanan, Someetharan, Senthil, Seena and Dharmesh presented the petition.

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Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board orders Tagros Chemicals shut, cuts electricity connection

By Nityanand Jayaraman
CUDDALORE, 6 MARCH, 2006
The Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board at 4.30 p.m. issued closure orders and disconnected the electricity to Tagros Chemicals, a manufacturer of synthetic pyrethroids, a class of highly toxic pesticides. The company, which is located in Pachaiyankuppam village, had expanded capacity illegally, and was manufacturing and exporting products that it was not authorised to produce. On November 27, 2005, the company was found dumping toxic effluents on a farmer’s land in Poondiyankuppam, a nearby village within the Semmankuppam Panchayat.
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The president of the Panchayat had in December 2005 invoked a seldom used clause under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, and written to the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board and the Ministry of Environment & Forests —
“Since the Ministry of Environment & Forests and the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board seem incapable or unwilling to take any action to implement the law, I intend to prosecute Tagros Chemicals and its contractor Mr. Senthil Velan under Section 15 of the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, and under Sections 6 and 16 of the Hazardous Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 1989. I request the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board to provide us with all the reports relating to Tagros in its possession to us. Please let us know who the occupier of the facility is, as he/she is liable under Section 16 of the Hazardous Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 1989.”
Indian law allows citizens to write to the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board requesting it to prosecute the offender within 60 days, failing which the citizen can step in the shoes of the regulator and conduct the prosecution.
Tagros Chemicals claims to be “India’s leading manufacturer exporters of various Synthetic Pyrethroids like Cypermethrin, Permethrin, Alpha cypermethrin, Deltamethrin and various other products like Imidachloprid, Hexaconazole, Propiconazole.” This was brought to the notice of the TNPCB in August 2004, less than a month before the company was to have a statutory public hearing to seek permission for expanding capacity and introducing new products.
According to SACEM, as early as in 2004, reports from workers and residents of SIPCOT indicated that not only had Tagros completed construction for the expanded capacity, but also engaged in production, including of new products. The matter was brought to the notice of the TNPCB and the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes in September 2004, and subsequently at the public hearing on September 7, 2004. No action was taken by the TNPCB, and the company continued to manufacture and export the unauthorised products in the illegally expanded factory. In February 2005, the SCMC recommended its closure to TNPCB. The company continued to operate illegally until it was shut-down today, a year later.
In the 17 month period that it operated illegally, and despite the knowledge of the Inspector of Factories, the District Collector of Cuddalore, and the TNPCB, 6 people were injured and one killed in four serious accidents in Tagros, according to SACEM records. During the same period, the company illegally dumped toxic wastes on open land on two separate occasions.
“Gas Trouble” – a September 2004 SACEM study on SIPCOT’s air quality – reports finding 14 chemicals in one air sample taken downwind of Tagros. Cancer-causing chemicals like Carbon Tetrachloride and ethylene dichloride were found at levels 11,538 and 22,973 times higher than levels considered safe by US EPA’s Region 6 screening levels.
Interestingly, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests seems unconcerned about the illegal expansion, or the SCMC’s recommendations for closure. A senior bureaucrat from MoEF also serves as member secretary of the SCMC. Ignoring SCMC’s recommendations, Tagros had directly submitted its application for environmental clearance to the Union Ministry, by-passing the TNPCB. Rather than take action, the MoEF is actively considering the file. Conditionally cleared by the technical committee, the MoEF currently has the “file under process.”
Tagros is not the only offender in SIPCOT, Cuddalore. The SCMC had also recommended closure orders for TANFAC, and similar complaints of toxic waste dumping and effluent spills are pending for months against Pondicherry Alum, SPIC, Loyal Super Fabrics and CUSECS.
The TNPCB remains highly inconsistent and arbitrary in the manner in which it applies the law. Tuticorin-based Sterlite Industries is operating an entire illegally constructed factory complex consisting of a 300,000 tonnes/year copper smelter, a 1,25,000 tonnes/year refiner, a power plant, an oxygen plant, and a Continuous Cast Rod unit.
But Sterlite is too well-connected to suffer Tagros’ fate. Despite repeated emphasis by the SCMC that Sterlite has both illegally expanded and endangered the environment, the TNPCB and MoEF have regularised the violation.
Sterlite’s Tuticorin smelter complex has a disturbing track record of safety. Between 1996 and 2004, at least 139 people have reportedly been injured and 13 have lost their lives in 15 incidents.
Related stories
1. Tagros Chemicals caught red handed dumping hazardous waste in SIPCOT area
http://www.sipcotcuddalore.com/updates_061205.html
2. Two more industrial accidents reported from Tagros Chemicals in SIPCOT
http://www.sipcotcuddalore.com/updates_311005.html

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Fishy Tales: how industry is destroying a river, a way of a life and a community's health in Cuddalore

FISH EXPORTS FROM CUDDALORE DECLINE DRAMATICALLY AS CHEMICAL INFLUX FROM INDUSTRIES INTO THE ENVIRONMENT INCREASE.
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By VK Shashikumar
Murthy, a fisherman from Sonanchawdi village in Cuddalore despairs over the chemical influx in the Uppanar River. “Our fishing activities have been grievously affected and the children in our community show signs of chemical poisoning. They complain of breathing disorders and nausea. The children are not growing properly and there are many who have stunted growth. It seems there is something wrong with their bones. A 14-year-old girl looks like she is 7 or 8. Many of our community members also complain of infertility.”
But the most damaging impact has been on the fishing trade. “Even Germany is not buying our prawns any more because of the chemical contamination. The prawns that we catch can find no market and are thrown away. There’s no bottom life in the riverbed any more, no algae, nothing for the fish to feed on. Earlier when we caught the fish they would be alive for 5 minutes, now they don’t even survive for 30 seconds,” says Murthy.
The fishermen say that during the rainy season the water level rises and washes away the contamination in the water and the silt in the river doesn’t have many contaminants enabling survival of bottom life on the riverbed. At this time the prawn catch is good. Pollution has made fishing dependent on the rainy season.
Sukumar, a fisherman from Thaikalthunithorai village says that people
have generally stopped eating fish in this region because there seems to be direct relation between consumption of toxic contaminants in the fish and health problems like headaches and blisters on the body. “We have a dug a 300 feet bore well to draw out drinking water. But this water can’t be stored beyond a day because it begins to smell and we have also noticed that an oily film on the surface of stored water.
Vasanta from Eechankaadu village bemoaned the cancer of pollution that
has destroyed the Uppanar River. “The chemical in the water corrodes
kitchen utensils,” she said. “The Uppanar was beautiful earlier. The
children would go there, so would the cattle. Now it’s filled with
sludge. If you step in it you will instantly develop skin rashes.”
Read this account of Bhopal survivors’ leader and Goldman Prize winner Champadevi Shukla’s visit to Cuddalore in 2002
Twenty years ago when SIPCOT industrial estate was set up in Cuddalore it was done without taking environmental degradation into account. Like most project planning in India, planners of industrial estates ignored the heavy price that communities and the eventually the country pays when the sustainability of the ecology is not factored as the key element of any industrial development plan. “First they started building big companies. For the first few years we couldn’t tell the difference but soon we realised that our lives would be changed forever by the pollution emanating from the industries,” said Vasanta.
According to Nityanand Jayaram, a writer and environment activist who
took an active part in training the villagers to monitor analyse and
document environment pollution, “chemical odours are an indicator of
gross pollution and that the release of toxic gases from industries
represents a case of hazardous waste dumping into the atmosphere.”
Currently, no regulatory agency requires or monitors the air for toxic
gases such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur compounds.
Fed up with the degrading quality of their lives the villagers in
Cuddalore helped by Jayaram and other activists resolved to make their
habitats safe for future generations. The villagers in Cuddalore now go on regular pollution patrol exercises. They collect air samples and
analyse them for pollutants. This grassroots movement has even attracted the attention of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.
SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors are the first to have
conducted a study on toxic gases in ambient air in India. The findings of the report confirm that residents in SIPCOT have been exposed to toxic gases for at least 20 years. The report’s findings corroborate the persistent complaints by residents about pollution-related health effects and bear particular relevance to the health of women, children and the elderly who spend all their time within the polluted confines of the SIPCOT villages.
In fact, the SCMC has referred to the ‘Gas Trouble’ generated by the
villagers of Cuddalore. The Committee also said that such studies ought to be carried out by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). “The Board ought to seriously respect the ‘data’ provided in the complaints by human beings and the living sensors of human ears, throats and skin to industrial pollution,” stated SCMC.
The TNPCB has yet to come out with authentic information regarding the
nature and levels of toxic gases in the ambient air in the residential
areas in and around SIPCOT. The ‘Gas Trouble’ report has indicated
presence of 22 toxic chemicals that are harmful to eyes, respiratory
system, central nervous system, skin, liver, heart, kidney etc. Some of these chemicals are even known to cause cancer. Air quality measurements conducted by village monitors at different locations have reportedly shown concentration of toxic gaseous compounds far in excess of standards permissible under the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA). For many of these compounds there is no Indian standard as yet.
The SCMC has set an ultimatum to the TNPCB that “If the air pollution
around Cuddalore is not reversed within three months, from the date of
this Report, that is, by December 31, 2004, the entire Cuddalore
industrial estate shall go for closure and units will be allowed to
reopen only if they meet the currently available standards (applicable in this case) laid down under the USEPA for volatile organic compounds or CPCB (central pollution control board) standards if made available during this period.” However, the three-month deadline has gone by and in Cuddalore its business as usual.
This article is published under the fellowship programme of the National Foundation for India

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