Four days on, hope fades for families of those trapped in Assam’s Kopili hydel project
It has been four days of excruciating wait for 23-year-old Manoj Balmiki whose father Prempal Balmiki, a sweeper at the state-run NEEPCO’s Kopili hydel project, got trapped with three others in the powerhouse which got flooded as the penstock (pipe) punctured early morning on Monday.
Prempal Balmiki (54) who arrived in Assam from Badaun in Western Uttar Pradesh in early 1980s was on a night shift when he heard a loud sound and rushed downstairs in the powerhouse. Another employee, who was rushing out as he noticed the water gushing in told him to run. “My father perhaps could not hear it properly,” Manoj said.
Since then, Manoj has been shuttling between his residence and the 275 MW Kopili hydel project, three kilometers apart from each other in Umrangso in Dima Hasao district of southern Assam and his hopes of seeing his father alive have been fading with each passing day.
“He is the breadwinner of the family. Each time I come, the only constant has been this massive over 100 feet fountain of water which shows that the flow has not been controlled,” Manoj said.
Thirty-eight-year old Robert John Ngamlai (38), a junior engineer, is also among those trapped in the powerhouse. His brother Charles Ngamlai said he hasn’t slept for three nights since the accident happened. “The whole building of the power house is under water. We don’t know what has happened to the people inside. They have not been able to control the water yet,” Charles,a musician who also runs a small NGO, said.
The other two persons said to be trapped are Joy Singh and Raju Reddy.
On Wednesday officials struggled to close the intake gate which regulates the flow of the water between the reservoir and the tunnel as that would give rescuers a chance to get in.
“The rescue effort could not begin today as the NEEPCO has not been able to close the intake gate fully. Water pressure is still there,” Amitabh Rajkhowa, Deputy Commissioner, Dima Hasao said, adding that a team of State Disaster Response Force which has gone back, would come in from neighbouring Hojai and a team of National Disaster Response Force, too, will be on the rescue job once the access is possible.
“We have lowered the intake gate substantially,” a top official of the Kopili project said on condition of anonymity claiming that the water flow will be brought in control soon. “Simultaneously, dam level is also being lowered to mitigate the problem,” NEEPCO spokesperson said in a statement claiming that “situation is under control”. A high level emergency team of NEEPCO engineers, experts from Bhakra Beas Management Board and NHPC have arrived to take stock.
River water acidity due to rampant coal mining in the neighbouring Meghlaya has been a unique problem for the Kopili power project. A paper titled ‘corrosion resistance system for the steel liner of hydro-electric plant in acidic medium’ by Chandan Das and Abhradip Pal from IIT Guwahati presented at CORCON 2017, the international conference on corrosion, noted “In recent years, it has been found that the low Ph of the reservoir water has damaged plant equipment and metallic parts in KHEP due to corrosion.”
Chandan Das, professor at the chemical engineering department at IIT Guwahati who was involved in a study for KHEP said, “Whenever there is acidic system, the problem of corrosion becomes severe.” He refused to share details of his study for the KHEP citing a non-disclosure agreement.
The top official of the KHEP, meanwhile, accepted that acidic water has been a problem but said the exact reason for the mishap is yet to be ascertained. “Corrective action is taken from time to time. Penstock also went through routine checks like other equipment and fitness measurements were in permissible limit,” the official said. “It is an unavoidable accident and the reasons are being investigated,” the NEEPCO spokesperson’s statement said.
(with inputs from David Laitphlang in Shillong)