Ammonia gas leak in Chennai: Factory neither raised alarm nor alerted locals – a ground report

By Sushmita, Chennai

On 26th December, Ammonia gas leaked from a subsea pipeline of the Coromandel International Limited fertilizer company in Ennore, Chennai.

Ammonia levels in nearby areas spiked to at least five times the normal levels. Several people were hospitalized and 52 were diagnosed with ammonia poisoning.

Starting from the morning of 27th December, people from 33 villages in Ennore have been protesting demanding the permanent closure of the Coromandel’s fertilizer factory.

The TN Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) filed a report on the incident, which activists and the local community have found deeply unsatisfactory.

For example, the report does not recognize the lack of emergency preparedness of the company as a violation of law.

Due process had not been followed in allowing such a polluting company with an ammonia tank in a residential area, which is also not addressed.

Kaviamuthan, a resident of Ennore and a member of the Ennore People Protection Group spoke to Workers Unity Channel about the events of that day.

In addition to the effects of the pollution suffered by the community, Kaviamudhan also responds to permanent workers of the Coromandel factory who organized a one-day protest demanding the factory be re-opened.

What happened on 26 December night?

He told, “I am Kaviamudhan from Nehru Nagar in Ennore. My family has been living in Ennore for 3 generations.”

“Our problems with the Coromandel company did not start on 26th December (2023). Over the last 20 years, we have been facing lots of issues with this company. We have organized protests on many occasions.”

He said that many lives have been lost to cancer because of pollution caused by this company. Now and then, there would be excessive fumes, people would feel faint, they would feel burning in their chest.

He told that on the 26th December night, it was a more extreme event — “it was a blast. We all came face to face with a threat to our life that day.”

That night, the residents of Periyakuppam did not know what was going on.

They heard the news (of the leak) from workers who were returning from their shift in adjoining factories.

He told WU Tamil that the fumes were unbearable, people tied wet cloth on their noses as they rushed out of the houses.

They hurried out with their children without even locking their houses, or taking any stuff; they rushed just hoping to save their children’s lives. People with vehicles went in vehicles. Others, even old people, were on foot, running for as much as 2-3 km.

After that kind of a life-threatening experience, the people of Ennore spontaneously decided to protest. And now it has been the 65th day of the protest.

One resident said that, “various politicians have expressed their support for our protest. MLAs from 13 parties have spoken in favour of closing the factory in the legislative assembly, but the stance of the environment minister has not been agreeable to us.”

“He just plainly read out the TNPCB report (in the assembly). He has neither met us, nor has he inquired about the company.”

Protesters says that ‘we are not here demanding any relief from the government.’

Kaviamudhan says, “In case of a natural disaster like flood, tsunami, oil spill, we can ask for relief. But this is a case of negligence and indifference on the company’s part. This is attempted murder.”

The explosion (leak) happened under water, and thousands of aquatic animals died and floated up on the sea that day –fishes, turtles, prawns.

He said, “The scale of destruction scared us — if it had not been under water, we would have died. Because of that fear, we are not ready for any compromise. We stick to our one demand that the company should be permanently shut down.”

Kaviamudhan says, “Since 26th December, the air has been clean here. It is clean enough for us to stand and have this conversation here. When the company was running, we would have to cover our nose with a handkerchief whenever we passed this spot in a bus or a two-wheeler.”

He asked, “we had gotten used to that. The fumes were always there. Why do we want such a company here?”

“We are not against growth. But we don’t want growth that destroys our waters, our land, our soil and our people. They can run some other company (producing a different product) that does not threaten our lives.”

Do also read: Story of a Jharkhand laborer came to Chennai for livelihood but landed in hospital, wife lost one hand in Delhi

Workers protest for opening

Two days ago, Coromandel workers organized a protest demanding that the factory be re-started. There are 250-300 workers, they are protesting for their livelihood.

These workers are also party to one of the mistakes the company made. The workers would have known right away when the leak happened on the 26th night.

Kaviamudhan blames that those workers left the area in company vehicles and company ambulances. None of the workers informed the people in the surrounding communities.

He said, “At least, if the company alarm had rang, people would have known that there was a problem. Or else, the company should have sent out its staff to warn the people.”

“The company claims it was an accident; isn’t the company required to protect the neighboring communities in the event of such an accident?”

“The company didn’t do that, at least the company workers could have acted humanely by informing nearby households of what was happening; they just had to knock on a couple of doors.”

He says, “The reason the Coromandel workers did not do that is because none of them are from this area. If the workers were from here, they would have been concerned about their own family and would have made a phone call right away.”

“But on that night, the company workers were only focussed on escaping from the area themselves. Neither the company, nor the workers cared about the lives of people who live here.”

Now when those workers are protesting to address their own problem, we wonder if their demand is just.

Why people protest against Cormandel?

Protesters says that Cormandel (International Limited) runs many factories. They can give jobs to these workers in their other factories. They can move this factory to a place where there aren’t so many people living closeby.

They say that they can use this space for some other purpose — to run a business, or some other production unit, or an IT company, whatever. We won’t object to any of that.

The Ashok Leyland company is here — nobody has any objections to that. They make vehicles — buses, lorries etc. This company, on the other hand, manufactures a chemical.

People here have learnt about what happened in Bhopal (in 1984) and how many lives were lost. With that in mind, how can we allow this company to be here?

The company workers in their protest also stressed the importance of fertilizers. But actually, there are natural alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

Impact on community health

Kaviamudhan said, “We have suffered for many years. Women here have various reproductory problems. 70% percent of people born between 1982 and 1985 in Satyavanimuthu Nagar have brown stains on their teeth. When we go to the government dental hospital, the doctors guess that we are from Ennore even before examining us. That’s how pronounced the effects of the factory are.”

In 1988, scientists from King institute, Pondicherry conducted a ground water study in SVM Nagar. They concluded that the water is unfit for laundry, washing foodstuff and handwashing.

SVM Nagar is a village with 14 streets — there is a board in that village informing residents that the groundwater is unfit for any purpose.

The government got water for that area from Panchetti (a nearby town) via pipes and tankers. The groundwater pollution is because of fluorides seeping into the soil from the Coromandel factory. This was back in 1988.

He said, “We don’t agree with the TNPCB report, which says that the company is all good, and this is just an accident. Have you seen any sensors and displays in this area? Shouldn’t there be a display showing the ammonia concentration in the air at a given time?”

Demand to register a case of ‘attempt to murder’

Kaviamudhan says, “The emergency alarm doesn’t work. The company ambulances could have helped evacuate on the night of 26th. They didn’t do that either. In fact, there should be a ‘attempt to murder’ case against the company.”

“Instead on the morning of 27th December, when there was a spontaneous protest by people, police cases were filed against seventeen of us, who are part of Ennore People Protection Group. That day we were giving water to the protesters, we erected a pandal as protection against the sun, and arranged food and biscuits.”

“There are 3 cases against us which include obstructing the functioning of a government official and talking in bad language to police officials (sections 506/2 and 345). But what case has been filed against the company?”

“This creates doubts about the judgment that we will get. But we will continue the protest. There are more women than men in the protest, because the women are not ready to compromise. The women are the ones who are more concerned about health problems their children will have.”

“Exposure to ammonia leads to the birth of special needs children — because of a phenomenon called ‘organogenesis’ of the embryo. In such children, brain development is affected. There are such children in these neighborhoods. Women have seen all this, and they are not willing to compromise on the struggle. They are very clear and very determined.”

“The people here wonder what are we going to bequeath to the next generation. We won’t make any compromises in our struggle so that our next generation can have a better life. We don’t want a fertilizer company here that threatens people’s lives. Let the next generation of people live.”

He says, “I request the government to decide this issue in a timely way. The ongoing court case has been filed by the National Green Tribunal. The next hearing (of the National Green Tribunal) is on March 5th. We hope to get a good judgment.”

On March 17th, the 82nd day of the protest, police asked the protestors to vacate the protest site, on the pretext of the Model Code of Conduct coming into effect with the announcement of the General Election schedule.

The protestors now need to get permission from the Election Commission to continue their protest. If they fail to get the permission, they plan to approach the courts to claim their right to protest.

(Sushmita writes  The Talking to People Project blog based on her conversations with workers and activists.)

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