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The Fire in a Refinery

River Dhansiri flows quietly, criss-crossing Assam’s Golaghat district to empty into Brahmaputra. The region, home to half a million people and a rich flora and fauna, is the epitome of peace and tranquillity. Nestled in the green and hilly tracks, 40 kilometres away from Asia’s largest Rhino park-Kaziranga, the place is a great tourists’ delight.

But, on May 9, the silence got shattered after a massive fire engulfed the Hydrocracker unit of Numaligarh Refinery (NRL), a subsidiary of Oil India. The people were terrified at the deafening explosion, occurred around 7.15 in the evening. Life suddenly screeched to a halt with fear, curiosity and concerns that ruled supreme in otherwise laidback region where evening sets in much earlier than the rest of the country.

Although the fire was brought under control within few hours, it left a trail of questions about the fire safety protocols of this one of the largest refineries in the India’s North-east. The incidents of fire and their timings, particularly in the last few years, point towards a very uncanny resemblance. It is during the summer months of April and May, that major fire incidents are happening in this young refinery year after year. Interestingly, most of the time, the incidents rock the refinery after it lights up from annual shutdown period. Worse, the incidents mostly happen in and around the Hydrocracker unit, which was contracted to Chevron and implemented by the Engineers India Ltd (EIL).

At about 18:35 hrs on 7th April, 2012, there was a major fire incident in NRLat the high pressure Reactor Effluent Air Fin Cooler (AFC EA-001D), leading to shut down of Hydrocracker unit along with Hydrogen unit. Onsite disaster was declared at 18:40 hrs.

At around 5:24 AM on May 31, 2013, another  major fire broke near crude booster pump area in CDU/VDU of NRL leading to shut down of the units resulting in damage of equipment, piping, support & cables, etc. onsite disaster was declared at 5:57AM.

On May 2, 2015, the CDU/VDU units of the refinery caught a major fire around 11.05 pm leading to huge vapour cloud creating massive panic among the locals as well as employees.

All these, and more, clearly direct to a point that the fire on May 9, 2023 may not be an isolated incident. The question arises whether it is colossal complacency or the construction faults that lead to fire year after year.

According to a senior official, Internal committees are constituted routinely after every incident, reports submitted and then everything brushed under the carpet. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are alleged to have blatantly ignored and no accountability is fixed. “We don’t learn from the incidents, but we always try to hush it up.”

The consistency of the fire incidence leads up to a question whether the refinery is exposed to a major disaster. After every incident, the company heaves a sigh of relief saying there were no casualties. But what about the damages, which have been regularly highlighted by the investigators.

Since these incidents prolong the shut-down periods, the crude supplies from the region to the refinery also gets terribly disrupted particularly from two state run companies- Oil India and Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). Sources in ONGC said that company’s production gets majorly impacted in its Assam Asset everytime the shutdowns are prolonged. The matter has been discussed several times in joint review meetings, say the sources.

A questionnaire to the Managements of NRL and its Parent company Oil India failed to elicit answer. On the contrary, a top official of Oil India, which itself had a major fire catastrophe in May 2020 at its Baghjan oil field, rubbished all the questions, put up by this news paper. The official remained evasive all the time this newspaper asked these questions.

A police investigation is reported to have been launched at the instance of the Minister of State, Petroleum & Natural Gas Mr Rameswar Teli in the latest incident along the side of internal technical investigation. The Oil Industry Safety Board (OISD) is also believed to have initiated an enquiry into the incident which, according to sources, may not be treated as an isolated one.

According to the oil industry safety expert, Mr Hirak Dutta, ED-OISD (Retd), four things are important regarding safety. First is the design of the plant; second is whether we know how to operate the plant; the third aspect is how we maintain the plant and fourth one is the human assets.

“Until and unless design is robust, we cannot operate a plant properly. So, design is the paramount thing in safety of the plant be it refinery, be it in pipeline or be it in offshore or onshore pipelines. So, design is the first thing. We may have the best of the designs, but if you do not know how to operate a plant properly, if you do not know the nitty-gritty of the plant, then you will have unsafe incidents. So, understanding, knowing the operation is very import. 59 The third important aspect is the maintenance part. We may have the best of the design. We know how to operate but if we do not maintain things properly, there will be unsafe situations. The fourth one is the human assets. Do we properly train the human assets? Do we properly educate the human assets? These are one part of safety. There should not be any unsafe situation if these things are strong. However, if this fails, then we must have adequate fire and fighting facilities or infrastructure. Nothing should happen if these things are strong. But, then if something happens, we must have good fire fighting infrastructure”, he explained.

NRL, which is one of the newest refineries in India, has a pivotal role to play not only in the North-eastern states, but also the nation’s oil diplomacy in the neighbouring countries. In view of its huge locational importance, the refinery is being expanded to 9 million tonnes per annum, three time from the existing capacity of 3mmpta.

But the recurrence of fire incidents, inadequate trainings, questionable maintenance have posed a spectre of uncertainties as to whether complacency rules supreme in sensitive plant. Any disaster will have a catastrophic consequence in this region of world’s topmost biodiversity and on the India’s strategic importance.

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