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‘Towering inferno could have affected Mumbai coast’

Thursday, October 12, 2017
By Raju Vernekar

The burning oil could have affected the entire Mumbai coast if it had spread over from Colaba to Sion and JNPT to Elephanta Caves, besides polluting the entire stretch of water

Despite being surrounded by inflammable material in exceedingly large quantity, the inadequately staffed Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT)’s fire fighting brigade, not only saved over 85 per cent high speed diesel (HSD) by isolating tank number 13, but also saved the Mumbai coast, from turning into a towering inferno, in the recent fire at Butcher island off Mumbai Coast.

The fire which broke out on 6 October due to lightning strike, was contained on Tuesday (10 October, 2017) raising many questions about the safety standards followed by the Union Ministry of Shipping. According to those who participated in dousing operations, a single blast in surrounding tanks could have spelt huge disaster for Mumbai city and would have badly affected the supply of fuel throughout the country.

The burning oil could have affected the entire coast if it had spread over from Colaba to Sion and JNPT to Elephanta Caves, besides polluting the entire stretch of water.

“The representatives of BMC, Mumbai Fire Brigade, ONGC and CIDCO came to help up. But the work was mainly carried out by us since it is MbPT’s fire service. After five days operations our legs were swollen and were unable to even stand properly,” said an officer at the spot.  

The Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL)’s tank contained 84,000 MT oil, of which only 12,000 MT  to 15,000 MT oil was burnt and the rest was saved due to constant spraying of foam and water. The tank was surrounded by two more HSD and 5 tanks containing furnace oil. There were quite a few ships in the vicinity, containing nearly one lakh MT crude oil, each of which arrived from countries like Iran and Kuwait.

The temperature was over 700 degrees centigrade and the height of flames was 100 metres to 200 metres, Some of those who participated in the fire fighting operations told The Afternoon D & C that this operation  could be described as the “rarest of rare” since there was an acute shortage of hands.

The spraying of foam by helicopter was impossible because choppers wouldn’t have been able to withstand the severe heat. Nearly 2000 gallons of water per minute was sprayed from 5 MbPT’s water hydrants and over 40,000 litres foam was used to douse the fire.

The oil companies BPL and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) badly depend  on this marine oil terminal. Crude oil and other commodities are offloaded at the “Jawahar Dweep” anchorage and stored in tanks before being transported to refineries at nearby Mahul in North East Mumbai, through submerged pipelines. Petroleum products, such as HSD, light diesel oil, etc. are ever stored here for supply to various parts of the country. Crude oil is imported through MbPT’s installations by oil PSUs, who have a refining facility at Mumbai. This oil is then transferred to refineries through pipelines.

However despite increasing workload, the norms stipulated by the Oil Industry Safety Directorate, a regulatory body set up by the UnionMinistry of Petroleum and Natural Gas are not adhered to by the union shipping ministry and the MbPT continues to be inadequately staffed since  recruitment has been banned since 1997. For example the sanctioned strength of firemen for four fire stations of MbPT is 139. But existing strength of firemen is nearly half. Similarly the number of vehicles is also woefully short and the firemen have to use existing rickety vehicles.

Some time back, a committee set up under the chairmanship of Mumbai Fire brigade  Chief Fire Officer Amarjit singh Daljitsingh Jhandwal, had recommended that the MBPT should have a force of nearly 205 firemen if it has to successfully tackle any disaster. But, the situation remains as it is since the shipping ministry officials do not approve fresh recruitment and insist that if at all the people are recruited, the recruitment should be on contract basis.

“To recruit people on contract basis is ridiculous because MBPT’ s fire force is itself like a para-military force. Can people on contract basis be recruited in the army? Some of the MbPT officers question. Under the circumstances the best option is to recruit fresh firemen in the age group of 18 years to 20 years, trained at the Directorate of Maharashtra Fire Service, Kalina,” said an officer who wished not to be named.

At present there are four  berths at Butcher Island and the work of fifth berth is on. After expansion the ships with more cargo (two lakh MT and above) will enter the anchorage. In case of any emergency,  what can the MBPT  do if the infrastructure is not upgraded ? MbPT officers ask.

Meanwhile Milind Ghankutkar, Secretary, President of the Mumbai Port Trust of the Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti Mahasangh has demanded immediate recruitment in the MBPT’ fire force. He has also demanded that those who valiantly fought the Butcher island fire be awarded and honoured suitably.

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