Down Memory Lane: How Gas Leak In Rourkela Was Handled

About 48 years ago, I was in Rourkela as the Additional District Magistrate (ADM) and Kanwal Jeet Singh Chatrath was the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), Panposh. My house was just behind his. One day, around 11 pm I was forced out of my bed to respond to some commotion, close to the window of our bedroom. I saw around 20 people led by Chatrath. They spoke to me agitatedly while pointing out to the sky with specks of dark cloud. Though I heard them speak, I was in sleep and not much got registered in my mind.

I returned to my bedroom abruptly without any response from my side and Chatrath was nice enough to take the crowd back to wherever it had come from.

Back on bed, I tried to sleep again; but could not. I went out and looked at the sky to understand the import of the spectacle that was being shown in vain to me by Chatrath and the people he led. Our houses in Uditnagar being close to the Rourkela Steel Plant, one always saw the glow of bright lights of the steel mill illuminating the low heights of the night sky. I saw huge moving columns of dark cloud emanating from the factory premises. There was smell of a chemical, somewhat irritating.

My heart sank; sleep had vanished. I set on a mission mode all by myself. My telephone was the only tool to fight the emergency. There was no response from nearly 20 relevant numbers I contacted. People were in deep sleep or even if someone was not, preferred not to take the call. At last, one kind soul responded, around one in the morning. Ramesh Pant, a senior engineer of the steel mill, was a close friend. He promised to look into the problem. Most employees of the steel facility lived in the steel township, away from the factory and had not encountered the gas.

After about an hour, Pant called back. The problem had been fixed; emission of gas had stopped. I thanked myself; did not like to wake up Chatrath. Kept the development to myself. Pant had explained to me what went wrong that night.

Sulphur is used for production of sulphuric acid that is required for production of ammonium sulphate and for pickling of cold rolled coil in the steel mill. Sulphur gets converted to sulphuric acid through contact process comprising three stages. First stage is the burning of sulphur in air to make sulphur dioxide gas. This gets converted, in the second stage, to sulphur trioxide with vanadium oxide acting as catalyst. The catalyst does not work in temperature below 400 degrees Celsius. They do the conversion at a temperature of 450 degree Celsius. In the final stage, sulphur trioxide is first absorbed into concentrated sulphuric acid producing a thick fuming liquid called oleum, which then is mixed with great care with water to produce sulphuric acid. The sulphur trioxide is not mixed directly with pure water to avoid a highly exothermic reaction, which would produce a fine mist of sulphuric acid that is difficult to condense and could escape to pollute the air. Strict limitations are set on the release of sulphur dioxide gas into the air as a waste product as the gas contributes to global warming and causes acid rain.

In the night shift of that fateful day, somehow the acid circulation pump failed to function that stopped circulation of 98% sulphuric acid required for absorption of sulphur trioxide and sulphur dioxide gases. Evidently this failure led to escaping of the sulphur trioxide and sulphur dioxide fumes into the atmosphere causing irritation to the public and workers in the steel mill. The effect was more pronounced in Uditnagar as wind was blowing in that direction. When the problem was fixed, the sulphuric acid plant was stopped and gradually atmosphere was cleared of the polluting fumes.

The next morning, I received a long wireless message in which the government’s grave anxiety over the leakage of gas had been expressed and I was asked why I had not reported this to the government and also to indicate the latest position. I informed the government how the situation was tackled in that night itself.

I still feel it is better to handle many things single handed for quicker and effective solution. If possible, we should avoid disturbing people and thereby avoid panic and confusion. There are however occasions when we need collective action and we even have to ask people to vacate their homes, even at night; but the civil servant on the spot should exercise his discretion on case-by-case basis as each is different from the other. He should not associate others with the intention of passing on the buck. He should not also show off saying, “I did it alone.” He is paid for doing it.

I had passed on this narrative to Chatrath some years after writing it in my blog. And this is what Chatrath wrote:

Do you remember Sir, that next day early in the morning the dashing Collector/DM of the district (Mr. Ashok Mubayi) drove from his headquarters 100 kms away straight to my house. He asked me to narrate what had happened. After I finished, he asked “So, what do you plan to do”. I told him point blank that I was going to issue a Show Cause notice u/s 133 of the Cr.P.C. by name and by designation to the top man of the Rourkela Steel Plant, Dr. PL Agarwal”.

“Hmmm” said the Collector and asked me if I knew that Dr. Agarwal was equivalent in rank to an Additional Secretary of Government of India. No Sir, I said and added that it did not make any difference to the alleged criminal liability of a person.

The Collector came closer to me, patted me on the back and said “You know since Prasanna is the senior most govt. official in Rourkela, I will let him handle this matter.” And then said, “Come let us go to Prasanna’s house and have some coffee there.”

Also Read: Oh Deer! When The Fawn From Kashipur Taught Us A Life Lesson

[Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are personal and do not necessarily represent that of the website]

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