A leak of ammonia gas from the Madras Fertilizers Limited (MFL) factory in Manali on last Thursday night left the residents of some nearby areas struggling for breath for a short while.
The incident, which happened hardly a week after the Vizag gas tragedy that claimed 13 lives, has raised fresh safety concerns among the residents of Manali.
The officials, however, termed the incident as a 'minor' leak.
A senior official from Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) confirmed that the leak occurred.
He suspected that it could have released from the pressure relief valves when there was an unscheduled shutdown of a urea unit. Ammonia is a key raw material for urea production.
The official, however, termed the leak as "minor", saying neither the Central Pollution Control Board's (CPCB) nor the TNPCB's ambient air monitoring stations located close to the fertilizer factory captured any abnormal ammonia levels. "The data showed the levels were within permissible limits," he added.
The residents, meanwhile, had a contradicting take on the whole incident. At 8.30 pm, 55-year-old Lalitha was stretching legs outside her home in Mathur, a residential area in Manali. Her children and grandchildren were also in the vicinity. Suddenly, the air was filled with the pungent smell of ammonia.
"The next 30-40 minutes were hell. The leak caused severe eye irritation, nausea and breathlessness," she said.
Ammonia leaks are nothing new to residents of Manali.
"However, this time the leak was substantial," said Lalitha adding that the lockdown turned helpful since most of them were wearing masks and staying indoors.
Incidentally, a TNPCB inspection team that visited the MFL did not retrieve the data from real-time air quality monitors installed within factory premises. TNPCB chairman AV Venkatachalam did not respond.
It's learned that the factory was completely shutdown on last Friday. MFL is a Public Sector Undertaking under the administrative control of the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers.
RS Babu, secretary, Mathur Residential Welfare Association, told that people in the area have been battling the arbitrary and sudden release of ammonia gas from MFL for nearly two decades. He said several complaints have been lodged but to no avail.
"Usually, we face this problem during rainy season when the air is heavy with moisture and the gas is unable to rise and disperse. We learned to live with it, however, Thursday's experience was frightening," Babu said.
Both Manali and M2 stations police confirmed that residents of Mathur have complained of health issues due to ammonia leak.
Senior advocate TK Ramkumar, former chairman of Local Area Environment Committee appointed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee for hazardous waste monitoring in Manali industrial area said, "The latest ammonia leak from MFL comes as no surprise to me. Whenever I had gone to Manali for inspection, I returned with a severe headache. Such is the pollution there."
Calls made to office of H Gunasekaran, General Manager (Personnel and Administration), MFL went unanswered.
Meanwhile, Chief Manager Anantha Vijayan said nothing untoward had occurred but refused to answer any questions saying he was not authorised.