It was 1990. I was an Associate Professor at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering (CESE) at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay.
I received a call from Mr. S K Patil, Member Secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB). “Dr Modak, The Honorable High Court of Mumbai is appointing an Expert Committee to decide on the Environmental Clearance of the proposed Modernization and Expansion of M/s National Organic Chemicals & Industries Ltd (NOCIL). I would like to request you to join this Committee. The Committee will be headed by Dr R K Garg, Director of Chemical Engineering Department of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC)”
Dr R K Garg was a well-known authority in the field of Hazard Assessment. He had earlier chaired the Committee (more known as the “Garg Committee”) on Assessment of Hazardous Industries in the Thane-Belapur area outskirts of Mumbai. The Garg Committee had come up with several major observations and recommendations to the MPCB. Working with Dr Garg was going to be a great honor, learning and experience. I readily accepted the invitation.
NOCIL was a Mafatlal Group’s flagship company. It was the largest rubber chemicals manufacturer in India. But the plant was nearly 30 years old and badly needed modernization for its viability. The Team at NOCIL was one of the best in the chemical industry led by M S Patwardhan and President K Dharam. Dharam was a smart – a great manager and an engineer of details. Prof M M Sharma, internationally well-known chemical engineer and Director of the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) was NOCIL’s advisor on technologies. Dr Deepak Kantawala, a doyen in industrial pollution control was the Environmental Consultant. So our “battle” with NOCIL was not going to be easy.
Our Committee members consisted Prof S B Chandalia of UDCT, Mr. M S Mirashi of the Factory’s Inspectorate of the Government of Maharashtra, P K Ghosh of Indian Rare Earth (IRE) – close associate of Dr Garg, Representatives of Department of Explosives, Department of Industries and Department of Environment with Dr S R Choudhari of MPCB as the Member Secretary.
I recall we all met on the 9th Floor of “Benhur” at the office of IRE in Marine Lines. Dr Garg gave all of us a briefing and we were provided documentation on NOCIL’s application for Environmental Clearance as well as objections/protests made. Dr Garg then allocated roles and responsibilities and we decided to meet every Sunday at Benhur to examine the case and meet key stakeholders that included some of the major environmental NGOs who had objected to the Modernization & Expansion (M&E) of NOCIL. We met over six months to submit our final report to the Honorable High Court.
The case of M&E of NOCIL was well made, making argument that this upgradation will lead to export of chemicals and help boost the Indian chemical industry. Importantly, the pollution load to environment (both air emissions and effluents) was to remain same because the technologies to be deployed were going to be far superior, backed by Shell International. Further, the M&E would lead to the generation of new jobs creating a positive social impact. The company had impeccable record on Health, Environment & Safety (HSE) with several initiatives taken “beyond compliance”.
The project proposal was however controversial. M&E of NOCIL was going to lead to expansion of several industries in the Thane-Belapur industrial area – something that was going to be hard to control. Some voiced that this was a kind of hidden agenda of the Mafatlals, backed by the Chief Minister Sharad Pawar. The M&E required closer examination in this perspective and a more rigorous assessment was needed of cumulative impacts on regional basis and assess potential hazards or risks. (Note that here we are discussing a case of 1990 when there was no National EIA Notification in place and “cumulative thinking” of impacts/risks was simply unheard of and never applied in practice. Our work was therefore going to be path breaking to some extent)
In those days, NOCIL was worth Rs 482-crores.The clearance of its naphtha cracker expansion was crucial for NOCIL’s survival. At that time, IPCL was expanding its Vadodara cracker and building another One at Nagothane in Maharashtra. And Ambanis’ Reliance Industries, Vijay Mallya’s UB Group, Rama Prasad Goenka’s RPG group and the Gas Authority of India Ltd, among others, were setting up gas and naphtha crackers. All of them were targeting to have an ethylene capacity of 3,00,000 tonnes a year or more, and could take advantage of economies of scale. So NOCIL, with its far smaller and therefore uneconomical plant operations, would be simply pushed out of the market.
With the increase in the capacity of its naphtha cracker, NOCIL’s ethylene production would quadruple from the current 75,000 tonnes to 3,00,000 tonnes. NOCIL had advantage of its relationship with Royal Dutch Shell Corporation, the multinational petrochemical giant. Shell’s participation in the company’s rights issue was expected to cover the entire Rs 400-crore foreign exchange component in the Rs 1,800-crore plan.
Mafatlal’s Polyethylene India Ltd.’s (PIL) expansion was also closely dovetailed with NOCIL’s. PIL intended to raise its HDPE capacity from 50,000 tonnes a year to 1,50,000 tonnes. To do this, it needed 1,50,000 tonnes of ethylene from NOCIL’s expanded capacity of 3,00,000 tonnes. PIL also had a series of other expansion plans-to manufacture a whole range of polymers used in thermoplastics and rubber and to produce 20,000 tonnes of aniline, a raw material for rubber chemicals. So M&E at NOCIL was like waking up of a monster.
Approached by various United Nations fora and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Department of Atomic Energy asked the BARC to conduct a risk assessment study for the Thane-Belapur Industrial Area (TBIA) in 1989. Under this Inter Agency Project (IAP) the BARC carried out ambient air quality monitoring studies for 3 years. The results showed, amongst other pollutants, high concentration of non-methane hydrocarbon concentrations exceeding the limits stated by US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The region was found to be already in a severe pollution stress due to both industrial and traffic emissions. One could not therefore limit the environmental and risk assessment only to NOCIL and a cumulative consideration mattered.
The first step was to make a visit to NOCIL’s plant in Thane-Belapur. When we visited the plant, we were received by K Dharam and his top technical team. The idea was to tour the plant, listen to the presentation of the Company on M&E, its rationale and assess the existing HSE management system.
I learnt a lot from Dr Garg on how to conduct such meetings. He was sharp on the dots, asking questions that sometimes put Dharam’s Team in difficult situations. I recall he even refused to lunch at NOCIL’s premises – although I was looking forward to!
The tour ended at NOCIL’s tank farm that had a large storage of Butadiene. Prof Chandalia, me and P K Ghosh had the task of risk assessment of NOCIL’s tank farm, considering “base line” and situation after M&E. I was particularly asked to do hazard assessment considering various scenarios (e.g. leaks with dense gas dispersion, BLEVES etc.) and importantly model the “domino effect” to check possible chain of blasts at the neighboring tank farms. Large gas storage at the Maharashtra Gas Cracker Complex (MGCC) was one such worry.
I asked Dharam how far is Vashi from the Butadiene tank. “9 kms” he answered. Prof Chandalia and I opened the map and we could see a direct distance of only 5 km and not 9 kms. When questioned, Dharam smiled and answered – 9 kms is the distance between the tank farm and Vashi by road. When I said that the Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE) does not travel by road, he laughed and said that both of us were actually right – but in different perspectives! Such was the battle between us and NOCIL.
Each meeting on Sunday at Benhur was a learning experience. Since I was working on risk assessment, Dr Garg organized for me, copies of the famous Purple Volumes developed by the TNO, Netherlands. I had to give an undertaking of non-disclosure. We were perhaps one of the very few in India who got access to this literature.
I had to do several calculations by hand and double check the results. I recall that I submitted my calculations to P K Ghosh and Dr Garg on the exceedance of Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) in the evening. When I reached home at night, I felt that I probably made some mistake in reading values from the risk curves. I remember I took a taxi at 1 am at night, reached my office at CESE, IIT and rechecked the computations till 3 am. I returned home only at 5 am when I was convinced that the calculations were correct.
(Later, TNO came up with software packages EFFECTS and RISKCURVES based on the Purple Volumes. I and my student Juzer Dhoondia, developed a computer package called MinRisk for on and off-site minimization of risk using Dow’s Fire & Explosion Index, Fatal Accident Rates (FAR), Most Probable Property Damage (MPPD) and Monds Toxicity Index.)
During the period of our assessment, I used to receive strange calls at home saying “Hello Dr Modak, you travel to IIT by train – don’t you? And hope you are aware that accidents do happen when travelling on train”. Initially, I used to get disturbed and worried but later I learnt to ignore such phone calls as I had a conviction that I was not destined to die in a train mishap!
There were rumors that some of the Garg Committee members have been bought out! We used to wonder who amongst us has been bought and only at the end of the journey I realized that this was simply not true and all members functioned with full independence and objectivity that the assessment deserved.
The last meeting of the Committee was held in Mantralaya in the anti-chamber room of the Chief Minister (CM) Pawar. Our final recommendation to the Honorable High Court was to say NO to NOCIL. As we were doing final reading of the draft and putting the various attachments, the door to CM’s room opened and Mr. Pawar walked in. I realized for the first time how imposing was his body frame and personality. He asked “who are the Maharashtrians in this Committee?” When some of us raised hands like school boys in the class, he growled “Don’t you feel ashamed to say NO to this very important project? If we say NO, do you realize that this company will shut down as unviable and the new project will move to Gujarat? Aren’t you not here to protect the interest of the State of Maharashtra? Shame on you”. There was a stone silence in the room.
But we stuck to our recommendation.We said NO to NOCIL’s proposal on Modernization and Expansion.