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Strike From Nowhere

A copper smelter, a flower company—which is guilty?

Strike From Nowhere

IN Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, one event is retold in four versions, each outsmarting the other. The story of the July 5, 1997 gas leak at Tuticorin, which left 120 people hospitalised, is similar.

These people, working in the vicinity of the Sterlite Industries copper smelter, complained of breathing problems, eye irritation and vomiting. A preliminary enquiry by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board found that the problem was caused by inhalation of sulphur dioxide emission from the unit. The board ordered the immediate shutdown of the plant.

Anil Agarwal, chairman, Sterlite Industries, while denying these symptoms were caused by the leak in his plant, shifted the blame to his neighbour Ramesh Flowers, whose employees largely comprised the hospitalised. Says he: "The wind direction, as recorded by the meteorological department, was in a south-west direction, and the flower company was east of the smelter. Even if there had been a leak, it would not have reached Ramesh Flowers." However, given its controversial past, Sterlite will find it tough to clear its name. The copper smelter, rejected by Maharashtra and Gujarat for want of government and environmental clearances, finally set up shop in Tamil Nadu. This was towards the end of Jayalalitha's dark days when other industrial groups were moving out or waiting for the government to fall.

But the state government panel—a four-member team from Annamalai University appointed to look into the leak—absolved Sterlite. In its report submitted on July 20, the panel, without directly blaming Ramesh Flowers for the gas leak, came down heavily on its dyeing and bleaching process. "The fumes or gas mixtures from the dyeing and bleaching processes carried out in the worksheds would have combined with sulphur dioxide concentration prevalent in the Ramesh Flowers campus and produced synergistic effect leading to symptoms reported by the affected individuals."

Meanwhile, Ramesh Flowers com missioned National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to study the leak. Their report exonerated Ramesh Flowers, stating its processes couldn't have emitted the toxic fumes whose manifestations were described. "These manifestations could only be caused from the adjoining copper smelter." The report, however, is silent on details of processes in Ramesh Flowers—fumigation, and use of subs tances like methyl bromide, which have the property of emitting toxic gases. While the government exp ert panel indirectly indicts Ramesh Flowers, its managing director M.R Singhvi categorically states that there are no bleaching activities in the premises and rubbishes the panel's contention as "contrived".

Based on visits by three scientists around July 20—the day the state panel submitted its report—NEERI finalised its report on August 4. It states: "Out of 11 patients examined for copper content in the blood, three showed blood copper level of more than 800 and 700 microgram per litre; three a level of more than 600 microgram per litre; the normal range being between 500 and 522 microgram per litre. " But, says Hemant Jalan, senior vice-president, Sterlite: "I've never heard of copper getting volatile and getting into the bloodstream. It's even stranger to hear copper has got into the soil."

 Stuck between the two reports, Chief Minister K. Karunanidhi asked for further clarifications on August 9. With the government panel's assurance that the symptoms exhibited by the victims couldn't have been due to sulphur dioxide inhalation, the government has revoked the closure and imposed three conditions—continuous monitoring of ambient air quality in the industry for a period of one year recording important parameters; resumption of operations with nine ambient air quality monitoring stations; and increasing the height of each stack or increasing the velocity of the stack exit.

 Meanwhile, the Anti-Sterlite People's Confederation went on a one-day hunger strike against the government report on August 18. Says Anton Gomez, its convenor: "We want the plant closed." From August 30, it plans to go on a long-drawn campaign against Sterlite. In the meantime, 120 hospitalised people wonder just what they inhaled. And from where.

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