Vizag Gas Leak: LG Polymers India Operated Plant ‘Illegally’ As It Did Not Have ‘Valid Environmental Clearance’

by M R Subramani - May 12, 2020 02:18 PM +05:30 IST
Vizag Gas Leak: LG Polymers India Operated Plant ‘Illegally’ As It Did Not Have ‘Valid Environmental Clearance’LG Polymers India Plant
  • The Visakhapatnam plant of LG Polymers is said to have been operating without environmental clearances, and has now been responsible for the gas leak which claimed many lives.

LG Polymers, the Indian unit of South Korea’s LG Chemicals, had reportedly been operating its plant at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh without valid environmental clearances.

The Visakhapatnam plant at R R Venkatapuram has been held responsible for the death of 12 people in a styrene gas leak during the wee hours of 7 May. At least 5,000 people reported sick with over a 100 being hospitalised.

In an affidavit, filed on 10 May last year, the company’s director (operations) P Poorna Chandra Mohana Rao admitted that when it applied for expanding its polystyrene (PS) and expandable polystyrene (EPS) manufacturing capacity, the state-level Environment Impact Assessment Authority had brought to the company’s notice that the plant’s production of PS and EPS then were without valid environmental clearance.

Stating that the authority had found the firm in “violation” of the applicable statute, Rao said the plant had operated with consent from Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board.

The affidavit was filed seeking environmental clearance for the plant’s expansion. There is no clarification either from the Andhra Pradesh government or LG Polymers if it had got the environment clearance and, if so, when.

However, LG Polymers during the weekend said the tragedy happened because of leaking vapour from the styrene monomer gas storage tank at its premises.

Retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) official E A S Sarma told Swarajya that LG Polymers should have ceased production pending environmental clearance for its expansion.

“It did not have valid environmental clearance for operation,” he said over phone from Visakhapatnam, where he resides these days and is active in an informal Forum for Better Visakhapatnam.

“My view is that criminal action should be taken against officials and the management and all of them should be prosecuted. The plant has affected the locality over a 10 km radius with two reservoirs nearby. The plant should be dismantled and scrapped as it is operating in a densely populated area and handling hazardous chemicals,” Sarma, who served in the Finance Ministry during 1999-2000, said.

The former bureaucrat said that post the 1984 gas tragedy at Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, the Centre had amended the Environment Act adding Sections 41-A to 41-H on storage of hazardous chemicals, handling imported chemicals etc.

“All these were not monitored,” he said.

Sarma, who has moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against LG Polymers’ Visakhapatnam plant, said some 30-40 accidents had taken place in these parts of Andhra Pradesh in the last few years but no action had been taken.

“There could have been loss of 30-40 lives,” he said.

Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Forum (APHRF) leader V S Krishna alleged that the Y S Jaganmohan Reddy was trying to save the Korean firm from any criminal liability for the gas leak.

He also said that quite a few such industrial accidents had happened and the issues have all ended up with financial compensation to the affected.

These revelations come at a time when demand to relocate the plant has gathered momentum. During the weekend, the locals staged a protest in front of the LG Polymers India plant with four of the victims’ bodies and demanded its relocation.

The protest led to tension in the area before the situation was brought under control.

Media reports said the plant could be relocated but the locals say it is unlikely for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that in 1997, an explosion occurred at the HPCL Refinery at Malapuram in Visakhapatnam killing 70 people. When the HPCL refinery was originally started by Caltex in 1957, Malapuram was a remote place. Now, with naval establishments coming around it, the locality has become a lively part of the coastal city.

Similarly, LG Polymers was launched in 1967 by Hindustan Polymers, and then RR Venkatapuram, where the plant was located, was a sort of forest area. Over the years, it has become a vibrant part of Visakhapatnam.

A local source said if the plant had to be relocated, it should have been done in 1997 when LG Chem took it over from United Breweries unit McDowells and Company Limited.

With the Korean company having invested further in the plant, any relocation is unlikely.

The second reason is that the YSR Congress Party-led Andhra Pradesh government has already begun giving “conduct certificate” to the Korean company, say local people.

“Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy has already gone on record to call LG Polymers a good company,” pointed out a local, who did not wish to identify.

The Visakhapatnam municipal corporation officials have already begun blaming “human error on the part of an employee” for the mishap. This, the locals including APHRF’s Krishna, say is part of efforts to save “erring company and government officials”.

On the other hand, the NGT has taken a serious view of the incident and asked LG Polymers to deposit an interim penalty of Rs 50 crore for “damage to life, public health and environment”.

Those optimistic of those responsible for the gas leak being brought to book point out to the NGT order that says the principle of “strict liability’ against the enterprise engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous industry will apply in the LG Polymers case.

A “strict liability” exists when an industrial unit is liable for committing an action, regardless of what the operator’s intent or mental state was when committing the action.

For now, the plant has been shut and its opening will depend on the report that a five-member high-powered committee submits after a thorough probe.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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