KARACHI: As the federal and provincial agencies continued their hitherto unsuccessful efforts to determine the source and place of a toxic gas leak in a neighbourhood of Karachi, the death toll from the leak rose to 14 on Tuesday.
With many persons hospitalised since Sunday, when the leak was first noticed, the people of the affected areas took to the streets, accusing the administration of paying only lip service over the grave issues involved.
• Traders reject report blaming soya bean consignments
• Commissioner says ship carrying soya bean has been moved away from Karachi port
• PSO closes Keamari oil terminal
After a brief respite on Monday, the situation began deteriorating again in the early hours of Tuesday when a number of people, including women and children, were rushed to private and government hospitals. This exercise continued till sunrise. Finally in the evening, the Sindh health ministry came up with the latest casualty figures.
“To conclude the report, 14 patients expired from Feb 16 to 18, till signing of this report at 6.30pm,” said the special health secretary in his report to Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah.
“It is pertinent to mention that 258 patients were examined and 232 were discharged after treatment and 12 patients are under observation in relevant hospitals. The specimens of the patients were collected and sent to Aga Khan University Hospital and ICCBS for further investigation and analytical study.”
The efforts to determine the cause or even the exact place of gas leak failed to bring anything to conclusion. Interestingly, the government even failed to bring the investigation agencies to the same page when it came to their findings.
The International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi suspected that “soybean dust (aeroallergens)” was behind the problem. However, a study conducted by a private laboratory assisting the Sindh environment authorities spoke of high levels of hydrogen sulfide and nitric oxide in the air.
“The air quality monitoring conducted over the past two days by a private laboratory in the affected areas of Keamari found the air extremely polluted, but the levels of pollutants, particularly two harmful gases, didn’t cross the limits where they could endanger a human life,” said a source privy to the study conducted by the private laboratory.
Amid confusing statements from different agencies, the people of Keamari, including the Railway Colony, Sikandarabad, Jackson Market and Masaan Road, continued to suffer as the authorities only promised to evacuate them without proper planning and arrangements on ground.
Panic and fear
The situation sparked a protest when hundreds of Keamari residents took to the streets and blocked the main road, suspending traffic to and from the Karachi Port Trust premises.
“The situation is such a mess,” said Jamal Khan, a protester and resident of the Railway Colony. “We should be ashamed that in this modern age we are unable to find the exact cause and place of all this poisonous gas. Are they doing this deliberately to conceal the truth?
“Above all, we are promised over television by the government of evacuation from these affected areas but no one has come yet to visit our streets and neighbourhoods.”
The situation arising out of the protest took more than three hours to normalise and the people dispersed after the local administration made several promises. But panic and fear didn’t lessen.
A majority of the schools in the affected areas and neighbouring blocks announced a holiday for the rest of the week and the state-run oil marketing company decided to suspend operations at its oil terminal in Keamari.
“The Pakistan State Oil has decided to keep its oil terminal in Keamari closed temporarily,” said the company spokesman.
“The move has been made only as a precautionary measure for safety and health of our staff. This temporary suspension would not affect our supply and it would continue unaffected across the country.”
Chief Minister Shah acknowledged that authorities had been unable to determine the cause of the toxic gas leak, which he said had not spread to other parts of the city. He called it a “mystery” but insisted that all institutions concerned were involved in efforts to unearth the cause of the incident.
“I am thankful to Pak Army, Sindh Police, district administration and health department who all have worked together to unearth the causes of the gas leak,” said Mr Shah, adding: “Pakistan Navy and Suparco are conducting lab tests of the wind and samples of various oils and goods cargos being downloaded at KPT.”
“The lab results would definitely resolve the issue,” he hoped.
Meanwhile, traders have rejected the report which blamed consignments of soybean as cause of the toxic air. They claimed to have met all quality checks defined under the law and said the consignment was believed to be of highest quality.
“The vessel contains merchantable soybean of US origin, which is of highest quality and was shipped after the usual stringent quality tests by the US Department of Agriculture,” said a statement issued by the All Pakistan Solvent Extractors’ Association.
“Upon arrival into Pakistan, the vessel was thoroughly inspected by the Department of Plant Protection (DPP) which found no quality issues. Therefore, the question of the cargo causing any toxicity to the environment does not arise.”
The claims from the traders, however, failed to convince the authorities who ordered removal of the ship carrying soybean from the Karachi Port to other destination.
“The ship carrying soybean has been removed from the KPT to other destination,” said Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani. “We have already taken all necessary precautionary measures in collaboration with health department and all other concerned institutions.”
A spokesman for the CM House, meanwhile, said that any final decision about evacuation or other steps would be taken in a meeting of the Sindh cabinet on Wednesday.
Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2020