NEW DELHI, Dec 27: Around 50 people were hospitalised after hundreds of residents rushed out on to the roads complaining of difficulties in breathing, and burning of eyes and faces following an ammonia gas leak incident late on Tuesday night in a fertilizer plant near Periyakuppam in Ennore, North Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, the state government said on Wednesday.
Tamil Nadu health minister M Subramanian said more than a hundred people from Ennore were affected and around 50 have been hospitalised. “All of them are stable now,” he told reporters after meeting the patients.
According to officials, the gas leak occurred from an underwater pipeline that runs from the sea to the factory at 11.45 pm from the fertiliser manufacturing facility of Coromandel International Limited (part of the Murugappa Group) in Ennore. After the local residents staged demonstrations in front of the facility on Wednesday, the state health minister has ordered temporary shutting down of the unit till further orders. A large number of people in the area complained of breathlessness and skin irritation following which they were admitted to different hospitals.
Several residents were hospitalised. Teams from the police and fire services rushed to the spot to evacuate people willing to move out. Residents of Chinnakuppam, Eranavur and Nettukuppam too, complained of uneasiness. Mr Selvam, a resident of Periyakuppam, said at around 10.30 p.m. people returning home from nearby industrial units could not pass via the beach road where the pipeline carrying the gas is located.
Joint Commissioner of Police, Avadi, Vijayakumar, said 12 persons were hospitalised at Government Stanley Hospital and another two at a private hospital last night. “Around 3,000-4,000 people were on the roads in the area last night. We reassured them and told them it was ammonia and the leak as contained after which the panic-like situation was defused,” Mr Vijayakumar said.
Police and district officials came to the site rushing with 16 ambulances and other public transport. Some people received first aid due to eye irritation and breathing difficulties, officials said. More than three hours after the leak, TNPCB’s inspection at 3.30 a.m. showed the ammonia level in the air to be 3 ppm. This equals 2090 microgram/m3 as against 400 microgram/m3 on a 24-hr average. Ammonia level in the sea water sample at the point of pipeline leakage at 3.49 a.m. was found to be 49 mg/litre as against the marine discharge standard of 5 mg/litre.
The southern bench of the National Green Tribunal, taking suo moto cognisance on Wednesday, directed the TNPCB to file a report to be heard on January 2, 2024.
Coromandel International Limited, a fertiliser manufacturing facility in Ennore, receives and unloads ammonia of 3,000 to 8,000 tonnes once a month from Iran or Saudi Arabia. Ammonia is received in liquid form at -33°C and stored in a storage tank in the same condition. It is transferred from the Ennore port through an eight-inch flexible High Density Polyethylene pipeline of a length of 2.5 km laid underneath the sea bed. Around 36 hours prior to the transfer of ammonia from the ships, a pre-cooling process of the pipeline is carried out to pump ammonia in its liquid condition.
Officials said during the pre-cooling process in the late hours of Tuesday, the unit [Coromandel] observed a pressure drop in the pipeline and saw gas bubbles coming out of the pipeline at about 2 feet from the shore. Locals noticed a pungent odour around 11 p.m. where the pipelines passes. Residents of Periyakuppam, Chinnakuppam, Netaji Nagar, Burma Nagar began experiencing an intense odour and eye irritation, which went on for a few hours.
According to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the unit observed the pressure drop at around 11.45 p.m and started depressurising the pipeline by diverting the ammonia vapour to the flare and completed the operation within 20 minutes.
Several families from the Periyakuppam fishing hamlet began evacuating to temples, community halls, and public schools eight to 10 kilometres from their area, around midnight. TNPCB officials and the Joint Director of the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH) reached the site by 2.15 a.m. and monitored ammonia level in the ambient air at a few places.
According to the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the short-term exposure limit or the concentration at which exposure of longer than 15 minutes is potentially dangerous is 35 ppm. The concentration at which the gas is immediately harmful to life or health is 300 ppm.
For four hours, locals in Ennore were exposed to extremely high levels of ammonia, possibly higher than TNPCB estimates. “Many of us experienced severe burning in the face and nose and were unable to breathe. I couldn’t stand, even with five masks. We moved to sleeping in temples and even the roads since we could not sleep inside our houses. Fish have died in the water and are floating near the leak spot in the water,” said Mr Selvam.
According to a statement issued by Coromandel International Limited, due to the abnormalities noticed in the delivery pipeline of liquid ammonia, the next shipment unloading at their multi-buoy mooring system in terminal is cancelled. “It will be brought into operation after rectification of abnormalities to the satisfaction and certification of concerned authorities. Till such time, Ennore minor port operation shall be temporarily suspended.”
Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi expressed grave concern over the gas leak in North Chennai and wished all those affected a speedy recovery. A social media post from Raj-Bhavan read: “Governor Ravi expressed grave concern over the unfortunate #GasLeakage incident from a factory at Ennore in north Chennai and wished for the speedy recovery of the victims of the accident.”
On Wednesday, locals protested demanding that the factory be closed. “Nobody warned us about the gas leak. Suddenly last night, my children and I were all feeling breathless,” said a 28-year-old mother of two young children. People also complained of burning in their eyes, throat, nose and chest. Some had fainted and complained of breathlessness.
Prabhakaran Veeraarasu, the environment engineer of the city-based NGO, Poovulagin Nanbargal, said the people have been exposed to extreme levels of ammonia. “What we are seeing now is the initial effects of ammonia exposure. Long-term ammonia exposure can affect the lungs and kidneys too. Since ammonia’s density is lighter than air, it would have dispersed by now. But, when it leaked at night, due to the high moisture content, the ammonia was trapped so people inhaled it for at least two-three hours.”
He said that the marine ecosystem has also been affected since ammonia in water turns into ammonia hydroxide and fishermen are reporting several dead fish in the sea, he added. The factory manufactures four lakh tonnes of Ammonium Phosphate Potash Sulphate annually and ammonia is one of the raw materials used for manufacturing, which is received from the minor port in Ennore through ships.