Butcher Island fire: BPCL had no firefighting capability says report

Updated: May 31, 2018, 13:04 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon

Safety committee that probed Butcher Island blaze of October 2017 finds initial firefighting was done by outsourced group, the water pressure was inadequate and, chiefly, that there was no disaster control room at the incident site

Firefighting operations went on for five days on the island
Firefighting operations went on for five days on the island

Serious lapses in procedure and protocol have come to light in the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD) report on the fire that broke out in Tank No. 13 (Tank A) of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) on Butcher Island on October 6, 2017. OISD is the petroleum ministry's regulatory and technical watchdog. The four-page report has, among other things, pointed to poor maintenance and almost no adherence to prescribed safety measures.

The report, prepared by a three-member OISD committee comprising V J Rao, executive director; M Gupta, additional director (refinery) and Pramod Kumar, joint director, found several lapses. Senior officers claim that had their concerns been taken seriously, such a situation would have been averted. They are keen to know what action will be taken on the basis of these findings.

The BPCL tank fire at Butcher Island in October last year
The BPCL tank fire at Butcher Island in October last year

Sources within the refinery, who got a preview of the OISD report, told mid-day that though OISD has tried to downplay the episode, it did touch upon a few areas of concern such as: a) initial fire fighting was carried out by an outsourced operating group that had limited experience of the oil and gas industry, b) the fire water header pressure was about 3.5 -4.5 kg/cm2g resulting in ineffective fire fighting initially, which was subsequently increased to 6-6.5 kg/cm2g, c) no Disaster Control Room set up at the site of the incident, d) the sprinkler system of adjacent tanks was working but had flange leakages and some of the spray nozzles were choked, e) CCTVs video of the fire could not be retrieved as the connected hard disk was faulty, f) The intensity of fire was reduced on the third night around 22 hours. However on the fourth day, the intensity of the flames increased and the fire was finally put out at 00.15 hours on the fifth day.

Reasons cited by experts
1) Tank A was commissioned in 1988 and had a diameter of 48 m, with a capacity of 32,000 KL and a fixed-roof. The original roof was 8mm thick and during an M&I in 2007, the roof was replaced with a 6mm thick plate. The reason for replacement of an 8 mm thick plate with 6 mm is not known.

2) An external inspection was carried out in 2014 and 2017. During these inspections, roof thickness and measurement was not carried out though the requirement was stipulated. Acoustic Emission Testing (AET) was carried out in 2017 to determine the condition of the tank bottom and based on AET results, M&I of Tank A was extended to the next year. Shell and roof integrity was ignored before giving an extension.

4) Considering the corrosion rate history of roof plates, it can be concluded that the Tank A roof plates were thinned out/pitted.

e) The root cause of Tank A fire was that roof plate thickness was less than 4.8 mm and got punctured due to lightning strike. As per OISD-GDN-180 the contents of metallic tanks used for storage of flammable liquids are considered to be inherently self-protecting against lightning if roof has a minimum thickness of 4.8mm. Heavy lightning strike generated high heat which punctured the thinned out/pitted tank roof.

Expert punches holes in report
A refinery insider, who did not wish to be identified and who had the chance to go through the report, said OISD was downplaying the incident and had left many unanswered questions:
a) The report vaguely mentions that outsourced fire operators with limited experience were engaged in fire fighting initially. No name of outsourced operator mentioned.

b) Losses current and continuing not mentioned. Quantity of product evacuated? Why was water valve closed? Were these serious lapses or intentional?

c) Flange leakages means poor maintenance. Lack of foam containers, another serious lapse.

d) Why was intensity of fire reduced on closing the inlet/outlet valves of two adjacent tanks? That clearly shows valves were passing through and no proper recordings were maintained, else such problems would have been detected.

e) Reasons of failure, root cause: Plate thickness not known. Past history of corrosion ignored especially being offshore and very close to the sea. Violated OISD guidelines.

BPCL says
A senior official from BPCL said, "The internal management will be considering all recommendations made in the OISD report before setting up new storage tanks. We are planning to remove few more storage tanks at Butcher Island to make space for new ones, which will adhere to all safety parameters." At the time of the incident, the tank, which had a capacity of 32,000 metric tonnes, was filled to the brim with high-speed diesel oil. While there were no casualties, the tank was irreversibly damaged.

The officer tried to downplay the issues highlighted in the report, stating, "It is humanly not possible to inspect the entire roof of the tank, so inspections are done upto wherever the ladder could reach. No one wants to take a risk after an accident in 2010, where a staffer who went to check the roof of a tank at HPCL, accidentally fell into the tank and died." BPCL will now spend over R25 crore to reconstruct the damaged tank. According to BPCL sources, the estimated loss due to the fire was around R80 crore. "As per the new safety norms, we can either do away with one of the tanks or reduce the size of the new tank. We are hoping to get the tank ready by the end of 2018," an officer said.

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