Sixteen months after a massive fire gutted one of CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory’s (NCL’s) newest laboratories – the Indus MAGIC lab — a fire audit has recommended that the lab procure over 100 safety equipment, including new fire alarms, extinguishers and fume hoods.
On the night of March 27, 2017, a fire had destroyed the 13-month-old Modular, Agile, Intensified and Continuous (MAGIC) lab, located in the pilot plant III of the NCL campus. Two government agencies and the Intelligence Bureau are independently investigating the incident, but neither teams have been able to ascertain the exact cause of the fire.
The response to a Right To Information (RTI) appeal, filed by The Indian Express with the NCL, reveals that the main recommendations to enhance safety were: identifying a new site for disposal of chemical solvent waste, timely collection, transportation and safe disposal of chemical waste at a site with electronic surveillance system, and placing spare keys of each laboratory outside it for easy access in case of emergencies, among other measures. Several committees and sub-committees have also been set up to lead ‘nine areas of safety enhancements’, as per the recommendations by the audit agency.
The name of the Mumbai-based agency, which conducted the audit, was not revealed in the RTI response.
As per the recommendations of the audit agency, the NCL has decided to install several new equipment for safety, such as 77 new fire extinguishers, 25 fire alarms, 19 new exhaust fans and 10 fume hoods. The need to procure fire safety equipment on such a large scale, however, raises questions about the existing safety standards followed at the government laboratory.
According to an official statement by CSIR-NCL last year, the CSIR committee had pegged the estimated loss due to the fire at Rs 16.56 crore, while the NCL’s internal inquiry team estimated it to be about Rs 6.73 crore, as it found several instruments and equipment inside the MAGIC lab undamaged. NCL said reports by both committees were tabled at the meeting of the Management Council on July 18 last year.
However, when The Indian Express sought copies of these reports, the latest RTI response read, “There are multiple governmental agencies which are examining the incident. Part of this process is yet to be completed, hence, internal confidential information and the fact-finding committee reports can’t be shared at the present time”.
The RTI response also revealed that in the aftermath of the fire, the NCL had conducted safety inspections in March, June, September and December last year. It said the Indus MAGIC lab, which has the task of supplying special-quality chemicals, has rented the services of multiple “outside-agencies” for disposing of chemical waste, identifying a solvent site on the campus and providing training on safety measures to NCL scientists and students.
Seven locations on the NCL campus have been identified for installing fire extinguishers, reveals the RTI response.
As many as 45 extinguishers will be installed at the Organic Chemistry Division, while all 25 fire alarms will be installed at the CFM Building, and the work is expected to be completed in multiple phases. At 10 locations on campus, 19 new exhaust fans, with additional fume hoods, will be installed.