Mumbai -Butcher Island Blaze : Losses Mount But Could Have Been Worse

Butcher 1“The only consolation to be extracted from the diesel tank fire off the Mumbai coast, is that the conflagration did not impact the neighboring fuel tanks, as had been feared in the early stages”, according to a source who had followed the operations closely.

Fire fighting operations at the Mumbai Port Trust's (MbPT) fuel tank farm on Butcher Island, located off the city coast, ended successfully on the morning of third day, officials said. The blaze had started three days earlier following a lightning strike. The island, officially known as Jawahar Dweep, houses a marine oil terminal. Crude oil and other commodities are offloaded at Butcher Island anchorage and stored in tanks before being transported to nearby refineries through underwater pipelines.

 “Operation at Jawahar Dweep is completed successfully,” Sanjay Bhatia, chairman, MbPT, said. Multiple agencies including the MbPT, oil major BPCL (which owns the tank that caught fire), ONGC, State planning agency CIDCO and the State government's fire services pooled their resources in a joint operation to contain the fire, he said.

Prima facie, a lightning strike on Friday evening, when the city and its suburbs experienced thundershowers, triggered the fire, Mr. Bhatia said. “It will take another few hours for the smouldering inside the tank to stop. Regular operations on the island will resume only after a thorough inspection of pipelines and other infrastructure.”

Butcher 2P. S. Rahangdale, Chief Fire Officer, BMC, who supervised the operation on behalf of the Mumbai Fire Brigade, said, “At present, a controlled burning and extinguishing operation is in progress. Very little high-speed diesel is left in the tank.”

On Sunday, after two days of being on fire, tank number 13 had collapsed inward slightly. BPCL has eight tanks on Butcher Island. No casualty was reported.

BPCL's executive director (refineries) ManoharRao said that officers of the Oil Industry Safety Directorate came to Mumbai on Saturday and began investigations into the blaze.

"They have been visiting the site since Saturday, but they have to inspect the tank. The fire is still raging, with the flames reaching up to oneand-a-half feet. There is a lot of smoke. We don't know when it will be completely doused. The tank had 30,000 kilo litres of high-speed diesel. More than half of it was drained out," said Rao. He further said that each tank costs Rs 25 crore and the insurance team inspected the damages on Monday. "But they also want to inspect the tank but can't do so till the fire is completely doused,'' Rao said.

At present, the sludge is burning. Asked if more safety measures will be taken, Rao said that it will depend on the recommendations of the directorate.

Meanwhile, the episode had triggered panic in the nearby port hub of Uran, a part of Navi Mumbai, with the residents claiming that they witnessed "black rain" on Sunday. The villagers also alleged that the pollution called by the blaze, which, the officials claimed, is under control now even though thick columns of smoke continue to billow out from the oil tank, has affected the marine life in the region.

The claims came on a day the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas started an investigation in the blaze fire that effectively gutted one tank of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) at the Mumbai Port Trust owned oil terminal at the Island.

"The rain that we received on Sunday was different. The water was granular. When we collected rain water in bowls and other containers, we couldn't believe our eyes, it was black," said vegetable vendor AshaKoli, a resident of Uran.

"The water was black in colour. But when we washed our hands with it, it didn't leave any stain," agreed Vinita Koli, a vegetable vendor who grows some of her sales at home.

Worried the rain was not "natural", some villagers ran out to protect tomatoes and lemons that they grow in small patches of land outside their houses. The fishing community in and around Uran believes that the fire and the huge amount of smoke that it generated has affected aquatic life.

A villager who sells fish with her father and brother for years now, said, "As it is, the catch was less this year. But this fire and the pollution further shrunk it."

They also complained that the fire blocked one of the routes used by the fishermen. "There's no traffic around the taanki (the tank that has caught fire). No boats are allowed in that direction. The fire hasn't stopped raging in days and the smoke even keeps the birds at bay," said 40-year-old Ravindra Koli, a resident of More village, in a chat with reporters.

Environmentalists are monitoring the situation with concern. "The black rain was actually soot mixed with rain water. This made the rain water impure. There can be health risks if any toxic fumes were present," said Debi Goenka, a renowned environmentalist. According to Goenka, the agencies involved in fire-fighting operation neither have the machinery nor the understanding of containing the fire. "They have now left it to burn out on itself. But till then, the amount of particulate matter we are throwing in the skies is crazy," he added.

Commenting about the cause of fire and the position of the tanks, he said, "The lightning struck only on one tower and this is the situation, what if more than one tank was affected? Do they have no safety measures in place to prevent such an incident? And what if this happens in tankers in the city? There has to be a better alternative in place."

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