The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the Union government to conduct a safety audit of thermal power stations across the country within six months. The order came on a petition filed against the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) in the aftermath of an accident in July, which killed 15 workers.
On July 1, 2020, an explosion occurred in the boiler of Unit 5 of Thermal Power Station-II, which killed six workers on the spot and injured several others. Nine other workers died later after treatment failed. The petition was filed alleging negligence on the part of the company in ensuring the safety of the equipment and the workers.
The NGT, while hearing the petition, ordered an interim compensation of Rs 5 crore. Meanwhile, it also set up an independent committee to ascertain the facts of the incident, and to submit a report detailing the causes of failure, impact on human lives, environment, compliance of safety norms etc. The independent committee consisted of members from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and the District Collector of Cuddalore. The said committee visited the site in September and submitted its report dated October 23 to the NGT.
Independent Committee report
According to the observations of the independent committee, the root cause of the incident was insufficient knowledge among the staff, poor safety protocols, poor safety awareness etc.
â€ś...Committee is of the view that the root causes of the accident in the girder of boiler supporting structure can be attributed to insufficient knowledge amongst staff, insufficient knowledge of the chemical properties of lignite, especially formation of water gas when water is applied on the lignite in hot conditions, poor safety protocol, poor safety awareness, inadequate risk assessment and response, poor process safety management systems and failure in conducting awareness programs among all the employees and workers about handling the smoldering,â€ť the report stated. It added that the emergency plan set up by NLC did not have any measures to deal with incidents of smoldering.
â€śThe Onsite emergency plan prepared by NLC lacked any measures to combat smoldering but only provided for fire occurrences and other accident scenarios. The NLC had no Emergency Plan to tackle the smoldering and water gas generation,â€ť the report stated. The committeeâ€™s report also said that the compensation paid by NLC, around Rs 6.11 to the families of the deceased and the injured workers, to be satisfactory.
Considering the facts stated in the report, the NGT ruled that the staff did not have the required knowledge of the standard operating protocols and of the process in the equipment they were tasked to deal with. The Tribunal also stated that the Occupier, the Head of Operation and Maintenance and the Safety Officer were held responsible for the accident. â€śThere is violation of safety norms under Section 38 of the Factories Act, 1948. There is also violation of the Manufacture, Storage, Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989,â€ť the Tribunal said. It added that the workers should have been briefed about the SOPs in the local language understandable by them as part of creating awareness.
The NGT also pointed out that while the petition alleges that the technology used in power plants I to VII are obsolete and the plants are nearing retirement by 2022, the Director of Boilers, Public Works Department (PWD) had certified that the said boiler was fit for continued operation till October 2024. â€śIn view of above, while we refrain from directing retirement of the unit, all safety measures may be duly adopted which may be regularly monitored and audited by teams of Experts on the subject and also by the Regulators,â€ť the Tribunal ordered.
Further, the Tribunal directed that a safety audit be conducted in similar thermal power plants across the country within a period of six months to avoid recurrence of such incidents. â€śWe also direct the Secretaries, Ministries of Power and Coal, Government of India, in coordination with such other Departments/Institutions as may be necessary, to undertake safety audit of similarly placed thermal power stations, throughout the country expeditiously, preferably within six months, to avoid recurrence of such incidents in future.â€ť