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February 27, 2020

Keamari gas leak: MNAs Qadir Patel, Ali Zaidi bicker as cause remains unknown

Top Story

February 27, 2020

ISLAMABAD: A war of words erupted on Wednesday between PPP lawmaker Abdul Qadir Patel and Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Haider Zaidi over the Keamari gas leak that left at least 14 people dead.

During a meeting of the Standing Committee on Maritime Affairs, Zaidi briefed the members on a report pertaining to the Keamari gas leak, following which he andPatel exchanged heated words with each other.

The PPP lawmaker, who represents the NA-248 constituency, or Karachi West-I, said he was hoping for the federal minister to provide the reasons behind the Keamari deaths. “The government has failed to ascertain the reasons of the gas leakage,” Patel said, to which Zaidi shot back, saying: “You cannot put all the blame on the government.”

The PPP lawmaker said people of his constituency were asking him why the deaths occurred and what caused the gas leakage. In response, the federal minister said: “You should ask your chief minister why the gas leakage occurred.”

Responding to Zaidi's briefing, Patel stressed that the area where the incident occurred was surrounded by the sea. “No one can go to that area without passing through the KPT [Karachi Port Trust]. Almost 90pc of the people who live in Keamari are KPT employees,” he added.

"A 70,000-tonne tanker, which had smoke rising from it, came towards Keamari," Patel noted. "Smoke had spread throughout Keamari, people were dying as soon as they breathed it. [But Zaidi] claims the smoke spread due to the wall of the oil area being nearby.

"The oil area is owned by the KPT as well. Minister sahab should not make vain comments. You claimed in your statement on the matter that there are distilleries in the area, which is why the deaths occurred.

"You are saying yourself that when the ships were loaded and offloaded, people started falling sick. When the loading stopped, the sickness stopped. Of the 4,000 people [affected], 10 died.

"You're right that they were asthma patients. Asthma patients are affected severely by the gas. You people did not properly close off the ship’s nozzles and its safety officer did not perform his duties fully. You should accept negligence in this regard," Patel fired back.

Zaidi, however, reiterated that the MNA "should not put the blame on me; [he should] go and talk to the Sindh Chief Minister".

Patel, again, pointed out that people had died in his constituency, and accused Zaidi of stating that they had died after drinking contaminated alcohol. However, Zaidi denied making any such statement. Prior to their verbal spat, Zaidi had briefed the committee on an initial report over the Keamari gas leakage.

"I got a call at 10:30pm on Sunday night and was told that numerous people, complaining of breathing problems, had been admitted to the Keamari hospital. I also got information that people who arrived from nearby Railway Colony were complaining of vomiting after the odour had spread.

"I requested the Pakistan Navy’s NBCD [Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence] to figure out what was going on. We went to the Keamari hospital where we got to know that people had fallen sick after the odour spread. More than 100 people were admitted there.

"The Ziauddin Hospital treated the patients for free," he added, noting that he had also spoken to Dr Asim Hussain — chairperson of the Ziauddin Group of Hospitals in Karachi — on the matter.

The federal minister explained that he went to the office of the superintendent of police (SP) at 2am, where the Navy's team was already present. According to the hospital's report, the first patient from the gas leakage incident arrived at 7:30pm on Sunday evening.

"A ship containing soybean was anchored at the port. A video claiming gas leaked from the soybean ship had already been aired.

"I went near the soybean ship myself and there was no odour," Zaidi said, adding that he was informed on Monday, February 17, that six people had died. "We then got to know that Customs House had been shut down," he mentioned.

"The media had aired reports that customs and port operations were halted. However, Customs House and port operations had not been stopped.

"There was a strange smell in the Customs House office and the Navy team said they were checking the basement. I was surprised at how the Custom House could have the odour but there was none in the KPT office.

"Around 7pm in the evening, the calls started coming in again but we still could not figure out what was the reason behind the gas leakage. In Keamari, people were complaining of irritation in eyes, vomiting, stomach ache, and dry throats," he added.

The minister informed the committee that he had spoken to Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as the law enforcement agencies, on the matter. "The Navy said air quality tests were carried out but reports [after those tests] have not been released yet," he said.

"Professor Dr Atta-ur-Rahman said on TV the deaths occurred due to soybean dust. The ship in question had arrived in Pakistan with security clearance from the United States.

"Nothing ever happened to the crew of that ship. Panic was created by naming soybean dust [as the cause] without any investigation whatsoever. There were 600-700 people at the site but nothing happened to them," he added.

Zaidi then said the gas issue had occurred in the Customs House's basement and that there could be two reasons behind it. "There are tanks parked on the other side of the wall of the area where most affectees live," he told the committee.

"People keep chemicals and petroleum in those tanks, which are then emptied and washed. If they are not washed, toxic gas spreads in the air.

"Hydrogen sulphate is a toxic gas, the spread of which has led to deaths in the past" as well, he said.

"Karachi Mayor [Wasim Akhtar] did not say anything on the matter … maybe he was busy?" The minister stressed that an investigative institution should ascertain the causes. "The area where gas leakage occurred is densely populated," he said.

"Under the supervision of Commissioner [Karachi Iftikhar Ali Shallwani], we set up a committee of experts and told them to examine" the affected area.

During the meeting, Jameel Ahmed Khan — a member of the Standing Committee on Maritime Affairs — said they were waiting for one report, whereas three have already been released. According to those reports, the deaths were caused by soybean allergy, he said, adding that soybean particles were found in the blood samples from the patients.

"It is unwise to ignore the medical reports," Khan said, adding, however, that the KPT "should clarify how it plans to prevent such incidents in the future". Research, he added, had proven that soybean was dangerous for asthma patients.