Thoothukudi again

| Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

The govt should either provide for proper maintenance of Vedanta’s locked out smelter or mothball the plant to prevent accidents

Thoothukudi’s woes seem never-ending. After the protests, deaths from police firing and closure of Vedanta’s copper smelter that lead to loss of thousands of jobs, now comes news of an acid leak at the plant which, if left unattended, can cause harm to people and the environment. A leak was detected last week in one of the eight tanks of concentrated sulphuric acid left unattended at the plant premises after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered disconnection of power supply to forcefully shut the plant down following extensive protests last month. In the last one week 900 tonnes of acid has been removed from the plant and there’s more left. But what’s worrying is Vedanta’s claim that it is not just sulphuric acid but also other hazardous chemicals and substances stored in the plant that are at risk, and that without power, the safety systems cannot be operated. The company has moved the Madras High Court seeking provision of minimum manpower and electricity to maintain the factory.

Considering how the plant was abruptly shut down overnight, it is possible that hazardous chemicals and resins used in the smelting process are still lying in the storage tanks. The protocols for plant shutdown are methodical and clearly laid down. The protocol assumes greater importance in the case of continuous process industries such as copper smelting which operate non-stop because at any given point in time there would be semi-finished products and raw materials in the process. Yet, TNPCB’s order did not take into account these aspects driven as it was by the government directive to shut down the plant forthwith. This is a dangerous lapse that could lead to adverse consequences.

The choices before the Tamil Nadu government now are clear — either allow Vedanta to maintain the plant in safe condition by providing the electricity required and permitting it to take the required number of workers inside for the purpose. Or, enforce a proper shut down of the plant by following the correct protocols for mothballing. A proper mothballing of the plant and equipment is in the interests of not just the government but also the company as it will help preserve the assets in working order. Given allegations by Vedanta of sabotage in the leak of sulphuric acid, it is imperative that the authorities also provide adequate security around the plant premises. The last thing that the government now needs is a leak of hazardous substances from the plant causing an environmental disaster not to speak of direct danger to people’s lives. That would be ironic because the plant was shut down precisely to ensure that such an eventuality did not happen.

Published on June 22, 2018
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