Union minister Jayanthi Natarajan addresses companies in light of recent leaks

The environment ministry would not hesitate to order oil companies to shut down their operations in the State if they do not initiate steps to control leaks from their pipelines, Jayanthi Natarajan, Union minister for environment and forests said on Saturday.

Addressing presspersons here, she said, even if the companies’ operations caused danger to one human being, they should be halted temporarily. “If the pipeline is found to be unsafe [then] it should be replaced and until then the operations be halted temporarily if there is danger,” Ms. Natarajan said, adding that the companies had assured her they would continue testing facilities.

The minister held a review with senior officials of public sector oil companies, in light of recently reported leaks in pipelines in densely-populated north Chennai areas. In the last one year there have been eight such incidents across the State, including four in the city and one in Nagapattinam.

In the city, oil companies, including Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, have around 92 km of pipelines of which 42 km are above ground and most of them run along railway lines.

Ms. Natarajan said she had directed the oil companies to deploy modern technology, especially SCADA (computer-based Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) to monitor drops in the pressure in pipelines, as a drop would be an indication of a leak. “The companies undertake visual monitoring to detect leaks from underground lines. Often the residents living near the pipelines are the ones who alert the companies of leaks. SCADA might be a bit expensive but nothing is too expensive when it comes to human lives,” she said.

The minister also advised the companies to use carbon steel coating and cathodic protection for pipelines. Those residing near pipelines must also be sensitised about the potential hazards, with enough awareness being created about the steps to be taken in the event of an emergency, she said.

She directed the Central and State pollution control boards to prepare a status report of the existing pipeline network, indicating vulnerable areas, and identify the upgradations required.

Ms. Natarajan expressed concern over the disposal of sludge generated during oil exploration. “The line between hazardous and non-hazardous materials had become unclear and therefore we have asked them to look into it. At present, a portion of the sludge is being incinerated,” she said.

She also said the Chennai Port Trust has been asked to put in place standard operating procedures to handle oil spills. The oil companies, Ms. Natarajan said, had assured her of initiating suitable action.

The problem with the pipelines, she said, was that they were laid 40 to 50 years ago. Therefore “we do have to take a hard look” to ensure safety and prevention of environmental hazards come first. 

The minister said she would strongly urge her senior colleagues in the petroleum ministry to replace the pipelines.

The issue of pipelines was not restricted to Tamil Nadu and she would be travelling on to Mumbai to hold meetings with the oil companies there, the minister said.

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