Ennore disaster: Panel recommends criminal case against CIL, CPCL

The Ennore People’s Protection Committee, a campaign front with representatives of all 32 villages in the Ennore-Ernavur region organised a citizens’ public hearing on January 1, 2024.
Ennore disaster: Panel recommends criminal case against CIL, CPCL
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An expert panel constituted by the Ennore People’s Protection Committee – a campaign by the residents – has recommended filing criminal cases against Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL) and Coromandel International Limited (CIL) for reckless negligence that led to hazardous pollution in the region. Ennore residents have been protesting since December 27, 2023, demanding to shut down CIL after the ammonia gas leak. Ennore has been devastated after back-to-back disasters—floods, the oil leak from CPCL and gas leak.

At around 11:45 pm on December 26, the pressure in the pipelines on the sea bed transporting ammonia dropped, causing the gas to leak. Many people fainted and were hospitalised. Others experienced irritation in the eyes and difficulty breathing. Following the incident, the unit was  closed temporarily. 

Stating that neither the government nor any authorities have heeded the demands and issues of the residents, the Ennore People’s Protection Committee, a campaign front with representatives of all 32 villages in the Ennore-Ernavur region organised a citizens’ public hearing on January 1, 2024. The public hearing committee was headed by retired Justice K Kannan, with advocate D Nagasaila, academician Kalpana Karunakaran, journalist Kavitha Muralidharan and labour activist and journalist Vaishnavi P as its members.

More than 15 women spoke at the public hearing and said no alarm was raised at any point to inform them of the gas leak. They also alleged that CIL was a ‘repeat offender’, and the leak of December 26 was not the first, but the worst to date. The residents also said they were unprepared to react to the leak as they had not been informed what to do in such instances.

“Just imagine. It is midnight, and you are in deep sleep. You get up and run. You don’t know where to run. We ran without a destination. That night was a black night. This leak happened from a pipe that was underwater. We could easily infer that the water absorbed much of the toxicity by the sight of the fish that died and washed up ashore. If the leak had happened over dry land, we would have died like the fish,” Shajitha from Kattukuppam said at the hearing.

The women also stated that the residents, including children, were suffering from several health issues. The issues ranged from infertility to underdeveloped organs in newborns.

After hearing from the residents, the panel said that Ennore’s visibly abused environment spoke of a long history of neglect, discrimination and governmental apathy. “While the oil spill and the gas leak have triggered the recent wave of discontent, people’s testimonies provide abundant evidence of the deadly nature of the ‘normal’, everyday life they have been forced to endure for decades,” they said.

The panel also pointed out that the government's response of booking the residents in criminal cases exposed the administration's ‘lack of empathy with the suffering people’. Stating that offsite emergency response plans should be available in the public domain, the panel said that CPCL and CIL failed to do even the minimum required to safeguard lives, property and the environment and instead invested in managing optics and downplaying the disaster.

“CIL and CPCL are both criminally liable for their abject negligence in both causing the gas leak and oil spill respectively and also in their tardy response to it,” the panel said and noted that the government has failed to initiate criminal action despite evidence of criminal negligence.

The committee also made eight recommendations to the government:

> File criminal cases against CPCL and CIL for reckless negligence leading to harm to human health and the environment.

> Shut down CIL and not permit them to reopen, given the proximity of the hazardous installation to densely populated neighbourhoods.

> Immediately announce interim relief to affected persons and withdraw the criminal cases filed against 18 residents booked for conducting peaceful protests.

> Conduct a comprehensive health checkup on the residents to assess the short-term and long-term impact of the exposure to the gas on the night of December 26 and provide adequate treatment, including counselling for trauma healing. The polluter should bear the cost of the treatment.

> The state government should conduct a comprehensive health survey among affected communities.

> Make the offsite emergency preparedness plan submitted by CPCL and CIL public. The government should publish the government’s inspection report on the gas leak.

> The gross and visible pollution in Ennore indicated that environmental laws were not implemented sincerely, and legal action should be taken against the company.

> Comply with the National Green Tribunal’s July 2022 order that directed the Tamil Nadu government to notify the full extent of the Ennore backwaters as a special wetland and take measures to holistically rehabilitate and rejuvenate it.

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