Broken fences allow public to access the fuel pipeline yard

A board hanging from one of the worn-down pillars beside the Hindustan Petroleum’s (HPCL) shunting yard in Elathur reads ‘No smoking’. Another asks people to leave the mobile phones with the security to prevent risks of sparks. But through the shunting yard with the huge storage tank in the backyard, a thousand mobiles and lit cigarettes pass by daily.

During the peak hours, the pedestrian traffic across these rails rivals that of any busy junction. Under this yard spread over 4 acres lies three large pipes carrying petrol, diesel and kerosene to the HPCL depot, which lies between East Elathur and the Kozhikode-Kannur National Highway.

The yard is situated in a densely populated area. In a radius of 4 km, there are around 2,000 houses, seven schools and a private hospital. In case of a catastrophe caused by a stray lit cigarette, the nearest fire station is situated 14 km away at Vellimadukunnu.

The area is supposed to be out of bounds for the public. Once a week, oil tanker trains arrive at this yard to supply fuel through the underground pipes to the depot.

The entire length of the yard is lined by stone pillars, but the barbed wires for the fences have either worn off or have been destroyed many years back.

For the residents of East Elathur, the yard is a convenient way to reach the main road or the Elathur Railway station nearby.

“The shunting yard has been functioning here for the past 25 years. All of us in this area have been crossing these rails for the past many years to go over to the other side. I don’t remember when the fences were destroyed. We never thought of it as a safety issue,” says K. Ramesan, who lives on the eastern side.

The situation here goes against the very grain of a September 2012 report titled ‘Storage and handling of petroleum products at depots’ tabled by a committee constituted under the Oil Industry Safety Directorate of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

“The Petroleum depots and terminals are generally located in remote areas. However, experience shows that with the passage of time, these get surrounded by residential/industrial installations. It can be impractical and prohibitively costly to design fire protection facilities to control catastrophic fires,” says the report.

The report underlines that safety mechanisms around depots and petroleum pipes should focus on ‘preventing emergencies from developing into major threat to the oil installation and surroundings.’

When contacted, an HPCL official told The Hindu that orders have already been given to install new fences and cordon off the area.

“The Railways had requested us to carry out fencing at the yard. Orders for the same have already been issued,” said the official.

Once the area is closed, the only way for the residents from the eastern side to cross over to the main road is the signal gate situated beside the shunting yard. However, for the past many years residents have been protesting over the long blocks caused by the oil tanker trains which are parked here after the shunting.

The Railways is planning to close down this signal gate and construct an underpass in this area. But local protests have happened over the size of the underpass and its location. According to the members of the protest committee, the underpass is located in a flood prone area. So, the residents could be cut off from the outside world during monsoons. Also, they are demanding that the height of the underpass should be at least 3.5 metres to facilitate truck traffic.

The shunting yard and the signal gate situated in Elathur, which was recently added to the Kozhikode Corporation, present a challenging situation to urban planners.

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