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Till the Next Disaster

THE death toll in the disaster at the Visakhapatnam refinery of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) has gone up to 54 and with more people still trapped in the debris it is likely to rise in the coming days. Five days after the 17 storage spheres caught fire two are stitl smouldering. A reconstruction of the events leading to the fire is as yet difficult. But it is likely that a leak in the LPG pipeline which was evacuating a container vessel in the dock went unnoticed, caught fire, the fire spread rapidly to the storage tank which exploded and other tanks close by caught fire. If this was the sequence of events, il is clear that safety measures failed at various levels. A leak is not in itself, it may be presumed, a major accident in a huge processing plant, but the measure of safety is in how quickly the leak is spotted and how effectively it is dealt with. Again, it is valid to assume that the worst case scenarios which must have been part of any design exercise would have taken into account the possibility of one of the tanks catching fire. And yet, clearly, the tanks, 17 of them, were clustered together in such a way as to make it possible for a conflagration in one to spread rapidly to the others. It is not simply a question of the proximity of the tanks but the fact that there were no barriers to the spread of the fire. And the failure of the local staff of the refinery in dealing with it at an early stage indicates a certain confusion at the administration and maintenance levels of the plant in coping with emergency situations, pointing to a lack of preparedness.

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