Govt, PPP trade barbs over gas leak

Updated February 27, 2020

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Minister rules out soya bean dust as cause of deaths in Keamari, but offers no explanation. — AFP/File
Minister rules out soya bean dust as cause of deaths in Keamari, but offers no explanation. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly Standing Committee on Maritime Affairs on Wednesday witnessed heated arguments between a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) lawmaker and a federal minister, with both accusing each other of politicising the deaths caused by a recent gas leak in Karachi’s Keamari area.

A meeting of the committee chaired by Mir Amer Ali Khan Magsi was briefed by Minister for Maritime Affairs Syed Ali Haider Zaidi on the Feb 16 gas leak incident in the vicinity of the Karachi Port Trust (KPT). He said reports from various sources had been received on the suspicious death of 10 people in the surrounding areas of the KPT. He said the deaths could not have been attributed to a soya bean shipment.

Mr Zaidi expressed his dismay and criticised Professor Ataur Rehman for taking up the matter at public forums. “First of all he wrote a letter to the Karachi commissioner; well that is OK if you make a suggestion to the competent authority, but why was this letter released to the media? And he even jumped to the conclusion claiming that the cause of deaths was soya bean dust,” the minister said. By going over to the media with this theory, Mr Rehman actually added to the already chaotic-like conditions in the city, he added.

Mr Zaidi told the committee that none of the workers at the port suffered from soya bean dust allergy as the winds were blowing from north to east — from the land to the sea. “The strangest part is that gas smell started coming up at different spots — from Jakson market, Customs House to Dawn office in West Wharf and even Ranchore Lane, etc,” he said, adding that there was no possibility of soya bean dust rising from the berths as two other ships were being unloaded at Port Qasim and there was no such complain.

The minister said the situation suggested that some toxic gases might have leaked from tanks in the KPT area or there would have been some underground reactions as the area used to be a landfill site. He referred to an article by Prof Syed Mohammad Husnain stating that the smell of gas and other indications showed that it could be hydrogen sulphide too coming from the sewerage system.

Minister rules out soya bean dust as cause of deaths in Keamari, but offers no explanation either

“We are looking at all options and we should wait for the final report by the Naval Biological Chemical Department on this matter,” the minister concluded.

However, Abdul Qadir Patel of the PPP accused the minister and his ministry of being incompetent and said both had failed to determine the cause of the deaths even 10 days after the incident.

“It was soya bean dust; why are you [minister] hiding it?” Mr Patel said, adding: “You put blame for everything on others.”

The PPP lawmaker’s remarks invited the ire of the minister who said it was the responsibility of the Sindh government to maintain the area and check encroachments there. “You have all sorts of vices in that area, including distilleries,” Mr Zaidi responded.

However, committee members Kesoo Mal and Lal Chand intervened to pacify the situation and chairman Magsi asked the KPT chairman, maritime affairs secretary and Qadir Patel about the smell of soya bean dust. He was told that it was colourless and odourless.

“But the victims complained that they felt the smell of rotten egg, so it could be anything else,” Mr Magsi said.

The committee was of the opinion that speculation should be avoided and both the federal and provincial governments needed to jointly investigate the causes to prevent loss of life in future.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2020