No official communication with the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Response and Fire Service Department over 18,700 metric tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate being stored at the warehouse facility owned by Sarvan Shipping private limited in Visakhapatnam.

Vizag Vishakapatanam Vizag port Disaster Response and Fire Service 8,700 metric tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate Sarvan Shipping private limited in Visakhapatnam Chief Controller of Explosives district collector, V Vinay Chand Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control BoardImage For Representation
news chemical Sunday, August 23, 2020 - 10:49

When 2,700 metric ton of Ammonium Nitrate caught fire in Bierut, Lebanon, the first ones on the scene were the firefighters from the Platoon 5 fire station, nine of the firefighters died. The explosion killed over 220 people, injuring over 5,000 and nearly levelled a part of the city.

According to reports, none of those officers was informed before that they were being sent to handle explosive material. At Mindi in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam close to the airport, the HAL refinery and the naval air force station, sits 18,700 metric tons of Ammonium Nitrate at the warehouse facility owned by Sarvan Shipping private limited. State authorities are, even now, trying to get Ammonium Nitrate trucked out of the warehouse, as soon as possible.

However, MD Rahiman, the station fire officer of Pedagantyada Fire Station, has no clue about the explosives being stored at the warehouse 12.2 kilometres away from the fire station where he works with 25 other firefighters. Firefighters with the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Response and Fire Service Department are the first responders in the event of a fire being reported, but they are not part of the bureaucratic tangle involving several state and central departments to oversee the handling of Ammonium Nitrate.

 “I was not informed that an explosive material is being stored in my jurisdiction. There has been no communication, I have just read about this in the news and Mindi comes under my jurisdiction,” said the fire officer with a service of 10 years in the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Response and Fire Service Department who oversees a staff of 25 firefighters. The officer is not aware of the nature of the explosive either, “We were not trained to deal with such explosives nor do we have the equipment required to face such a scenario,”.

Visakhapatnam, a city with over 2,175,000 lakh population has 4 fire stations, the requirement is one fire station per lakh people, say fire department officials. Imports of over 27,000 metric ton arrive at Vizag port and pass through the city annually.

“There has been no official communication by other departments with our department,” said G Srinivasalu, Regional fire officer for six districts in Andhra Pradesh, “The Vizag port have their own fire department but the shipping cargo company should inform us about the transit and storage, but they are not obligated to. We will take up the issue and pull up the cargo company,” the officer added.

Ammonium Nitrate was a classified explosive material in 2012 and the Ammonium Nitrate Rules were formed to oversee its handling within the country. The Chief Controller of Explosives under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry was tasked with the duty to enforce the rules. However, there is no clarity on if the officials were aware of such large quantities of Ammonium Nitrate being stored in one location. There is also no clarity on when the last inspection was carried out by the central government officers.

Under the rules, when the material is being transported from the Vizag port to the warehouses and from there to other states, the local police of each police station is to be notified. The truck is also to be fitted with GPS. The Vizag port officials say their responsibility ends once the trucks carrying Ammonium Nitrate leave their premises. They also inform the local police. The only form of inspections that are carried out at the warehouses is by the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB).

Officials with the APPCB after stumbling on the 18,700 metric tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate had issued a show-cause notice to Sarvan shipping privately limited, “We have directed them to push the importers to come and clear the stock quickly. We had told them to adhere to a few fire safety rules and they have complied. They do maintain tight security of the premises,” said an officer with the APPCB.

Officials with the Andhra Pradesh Factories Department say the storage of the material is at a warehouse and not at a factory thus its the task of the Chief Controller of Explosives to oversee how it's stored by private players. The Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Response and Fire Service Department stays out of the loop.

Clean chit 

The APPCB after issuing a show-cause notice, also gave a clean chit to the shipping company two weeks later. A three-member committee headed by the Visakhapatnam district collector, V Vinay Chand, the revenue divisional officer K Penchala Kishore and the executive engineer of the APPCB, Subhan along with the inspector of factories Siva Sankar Reddy visited the warehouse on August 7. The panel found no threat from the compound but sought the disaster management officials to conduct an in-depth study and suggest measures, reported The New Indian Express.

The Chief Controller of Explosives and officials from the Andhra Pradesh state disaster Response and Fire Service Department were absent from the panel and the August 7 inspection, “We can only initiate an inquiry against the shipping company if someone raises a formal complaint,” said Srinivasalu, the regional fire officer. The officer is yet to hear from the officials on the panel on conducting the in-depth study of the warehouse.

The officer with the APPCB did not wish to comment about the department giving the cargo company a clean chit, “There is no coordination between the departments. We had sent the Chief Controller of Explosives information about the APPCB inspections and the show cause notice but we didn't hear back from them. We do not know if they even carry out inspections,” the officer added.

The Visakhapatnam district collector, V Vinay Chand was unavailable for comment.

The past several months have been hectic for the Visakhapatnam District Fire Officer (DFO) Jaddu Mohana Rao with the city witnessing over 5 instances of industrial accidents and a recent fire accident at a COVID-19 care institution at Swarna hotel that left 10 dead, “Often when a fire breaks out there is very less information on the magnitude of the fire. I have to make split-second decisions on how many people am sending over to the spot based on emergency calls and media reports, it's never easy,” said the officer who was only informed about mass quantities of explosives being stored within his jurisdiction through media reports.

Mohana Rao is well aware of the dangers involved in storing 18,700 metric tons of Ammonium Nitrate in one place, "The risk is huge, very huge, secondary explosions are often always big, this private company should have their own fire trucks on standby at all times. But if there is a need and we are called, we won't hesitate, even for the Swarna fire accident our people went in to rescue COVID-19 patients, even though we knew the risks,”  he adds.

In the meantime EAS Sarma, the Former Principal Adviser (Energy) in the National Planning Commission, wrote to the Secretary (Industrial Promotion) Ministry of Commerce and Industry Dr Guruprasad Mohapatra, stating that there is also no clarity on the responsibilities of the different agencies. He pointed out that the APPCB concerns itself with the violations relevant to the environmental laws while the inspectors under the factories department administers the Factories Act.

“I am not sure whether the Joint Controller of Explosives has conducted any inspection whatsoever of the Ammonium Nitrate godowns at Vizag to ascertain compliance with the Ammonium Nitrate Rules. If no periodical inspections have been taken up, it calls for an explanation,” wrote Sarma.

The Chief Controller of Explosives did not wish to comment.

The office of the Director-General of Fire Service was unavailable for comment. One of the three directors of the department, K Jayaram Naik said, "The Fire Department not being kept in the loop in the transit and storage of Ammonium Nitrate is a serious lapse, someone should be highlighting this so there is better departmental coordination,"

TNM reached out on the publicly listed land phone numbers of Sarvan shipping privately limited, the numbers were out of service.

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