The port city of Vizag or Vishakhapatnam, situated on the south-east coast of India in the State of Andhra Pradesh, is home to several hazardous industries. In the early morning on 07 May 2020, five million people residing in the Vizag Metropolitan Region were rudely woken up by the alarming news of a poisonous chemical leak from a plant producing polystyrene-based products situated about 15 kms away on the outskirts of the city. As a result of exposure to toxic Styrene vapours that escaped from the plant, about 12 people and 32 animals have been killed so far. At least another 1000-odd people – living in the adjacent villages up to a radius of six kms – have reportedly suffered injuries of whom over 800 had to be hospitalized. About 4000 others, who were evacuated in time by some alert volunteers, managed to escape without any noticeable injuries. Nearly 10,000 other residents in the vicinity were forced to vacate their homes in panic. There are also sufficient indications that the environment through which the vapours traversed has been adversely affected. Even a week after the tragedy:
“People living in areas adjoining the LG Polymers plant say they are finding it hard to come to terms with the tragedy. Many complain of severe headache, vomiting, itching and burning sensation in eyes, problems in breathing, dizziness, skin irritation, among others.”
There was every possibility that the death-toll would have been far higher if the highly inflammable Styrene vapours had ignited and the huge quantity of Styrene monomer stored in two large tanks at the plant had exploded. Miraculously that did not happen and, therefore, the vast majority of residents of the Vizag Metropolitan Region are extremely fortunate to have survived the latest disaster unscathed. Although Styrene is far less toxic than MIC (methyl-iso-cyanate) – the chemical that had caused the Bhopal disaster in 1984, the enormous amount of Styrene (reportedly about 7000 kiloliters compared to the 80 kiloliters of MIC at Bhopal), which had been stored at the plant at the time of the disaster, did have the potential to cause a massive disaster in the Vizag region that would have had far worse consequences than the one that had wrecked havoc in Bhopal. (Fortunately, the remaining amount of Styrene monomer from the affected tank has been deactivated and 5000 kiloliters from the unaffected tanks at the plant site has been shipped back to Seoul on 11 May 2020.)
The plant in question, LG Polymer India Pvt. Ltd., is owned by LG Chem Ltd., an affiliate of LG Corp – the giant South Korean multinational company. The plant, which had employed about 500 workers, had a production capacity of about 650 tonnes of Styrene-based products every day. Apparently spread over 600 acres of government land, the plant was originally established in 1961 and was then known as ‘Hindustan Polymer’ until LG Chem bought it through a 100% takeover in 1997 and renamed it. Styrene, which was imported from Singapore, was probably stored in two 5000-kilolitre capacity tanks at the Vizag port and at the plant site in two 2500-kilolitre and in six 1500-kilolitre capacity ones.
One of the storage tanks at the plant, which at the time of the disaster had reportedly contained about 1900 kiloliters of Styrene monomer, was the one that had leaked. However, the actual amount of Styrene that had escaped from the tank has not been made public. Quoting officials, the Reuters news agency has reported that, “Styrene … leaked into the air around 2.30 am and enveloped homes.” The report added that, “Company sources disclosed that the leak was detected by a night shift maintenance worker.”However, the company did not alert the authorities or warn the public about the leak. “Authorities said the first call to emergency services came from a resident at 3.25 am, not the company.”
According to yet another report, it was two youngsters – Kiran and Suresh, who are residents of the village adjacent to the plant, who first alerted 4000-odd villagers of RR Venkatapuram about the impending disaster. Kiran, whose house was just about 200 meters from the plant, felt uneasy at around 02.30 am after inhaling vapours of the toxic chemical. Kiran quickly dialed his friend, Suresh, who resided on the other end of the village, who in turn woke up other friends to undertake the task of evacuating the villagers to safety during the next one hour. Unfortunately, not all the villagers could be alerted in time. People in the villages near the plant are extremely angry at the nightmarish experience they were forced to undergo. Due to public protest, the South Korean company had no option but to ship 8,000 kiloliters of Styrene monomer stored at the port along with 5000 kiloliters stored at the plant back to Seoul.
Styrene & the Plastics Industry
According to industry insiders:
“Styrene is one of the most important monomers produced by the chemical industry today. Styrene monomer is a basic building block of the plastics industry.”
However, they had also warned that:
“Styrene’s reactivity is such that it must be handled within a range of specially prescribed conditions. This is necessary not only to avoid certain safety hazards but also to prevent deterioration in the quality of the styrene. However, it has been well-demonstrated that styrene can be used, handled, and stored without difficulty when its physical and chemical properties are understood and the precautions associated with these properties are applied.”
Although about 30 million kiloliters of Styrene is produced and consumed globally every year, several mishaps involving the chemical has continued because, as a study has noted:
“… the storage and polymerization processes are prone to runaways as monomers are thermally unstable…. A significant number of these incidents were related to styrene production and handling…. Despite this, lessons have not been learned, and the reoccurrence of styrene-related runaway incidents continues.”
The latest disaster at Vizag is yet another example of the utterly irresponsible attitude of at least some sections within decision-makers in the industry whose priority is anything but health & safety and who are averse to upholding principles and in following best practices.
Styrene is a derivative of Benzene, a natural constituent of crude oil. It is a toxic colourless oily liquid that evaporates easily. The invisible Styrene vapour is heavier than air and highly inflammable. As per the safety standards set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the Threshold Limit Value (TLV) [also known as Derived No-Effect Levels (DNELs)] for Styrene is 20 ppm TWA (Time Tested Average) over an eight-hour period of exposure. [By comparison, the TLV of MIC is 0.02 ppm.] The Short Term Exposure Level (STEL) for Styrene for a period of fifteen minutes is 40 ppm (parts per million). While, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), USA, the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) dose of Styrene is around 700 ppm. It is suspected to be a human carcinogen and exposure to it may have adverse impact on eyes, skin, respiratory system, gastro-intestinal system, nervous system, liver, and reproductive system.
Impact on Health
As per available information:
+ “Styrene is currently (June 2018) classified for flammability, skin / eye irritation, acute toxicity, hearing damage and is suspected of reproductive toxicity.” [p.9]
+ “May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways.” [p.17]
+ [It is] “Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child.” [p.17]
+ “Styrene was reviewed [by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IACR)] most recently in March 2018 during which the classification was changed to Group 2A “probably carcinogenic to humans”. [p.18]
+ “In vitro mutagenicity tests generally only yielded positive results for styrene after metabolic activation.” [p.19]
+ “Styrene is harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects and therefore entry into drains, sewers and watercourses must be prevented if at all possible.” [p.29]
It has also been acknowledged that:
+ Exposure to “Very high levels [of Styrene] may affect brain and liver function.”
+ Styrene monomer may be a carcinogen in humans. There may be no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen, so all contact should be reduced to the lowest possible level.”
+ When Styrene is ignited “Poisonous gases are produced in fire.”
Violation of SOPs
Since Styrene is an extremely hazardous chemical, the Company did post a message on the company’s website to reassure the public about its concerns regarding the same. In their message, two top officials of the company, namely, Vice-Chairman and CEO LG Chem, Hak Cheol Shin, and President, LG Polymers India, Sunkey Jeong, had made tall promises regarding the company’s commitment towards health & safety issues, which were as follows:
“Here at LG Polymers India Private Limited of LG Chem, we recognize that Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) is the fundamental element for securing differentiated competitiveness. For continuous improvement on EH&S performance, LG Chem will be committed to implementing the following guiding principles….
+ We will comply with all applicable EH&S legal requirement and establish leading corporate EH&S rules and best practices….
To ensure compliance with this policy, we will consider EH&S as the top priority in all our business activities.”
Laudatory precepts are, it appears, something to be preached and not practiced. There are clear indications that the recommended Standard Operating Procedures for safely storing Styrene monomer were grossly violated by the management of LG Polymers plant in Vizag. From available news reports, it is very evident that Styrene vapours had escaped from the plant due to criminal negligence on the part of the plant management, who had desisted from taking all the necessary precautionary steps to safely store Styrene at the plant site. The causes of the disaster, according to these reports, were as follows:
“A few industry experts suspected corrosion to be responsible for the leak.”
“Overheating and corrosion of machinery are likely responsible for the tragedy….”
“Initial reports had suggested that maintenance failures, operating errors, and improper storage of the toxic styrene …, may have led to the tragedy.”
“A clogged cooling system was the likely cause of a temperature surge in a storage tank…”
In short, the plant management, far from complying “with all applicable EH&S legal requirement and establish[ing] leading corporate EH&S rules and best practices”, was operating a defective and unsafe plant while storing huge quantities of highly hazardous chemicals under dangerous conditions.
Precepts & Practices
The management of LG Polymers knew or should have known that there were proper recommended procedures to safely handle the hazardous chemical Styrene. However, as explained below, the practices followed by the plant management were wholly contrary to the recommended procedures. A closer examination of how the plant management had dealt with each of the major safety concerns related to storing of Styrene monomer completely exposes the highly irresponsible and inexcusable conduct of the plant management regarding safety concerns.
Recommended Procedures & Precautions:
+ “The standard construction material [for storage tank for Styrene monomer] is carbon steel or stainless steel.”[p.47]
+ “The design pressure [of the storage tank] should be to API-620 [to withstand a pressure of 15 pounds per sq inch gauge] or equivalent.” [p.47]
+ “The internal surface of the tank, including safety devices, must be smooth to avoid adhesion of condensed styrene and thus build-up of polymer. For carbon steel tanks a suitable [phenguard] coating … is recommended.” [p.47]
+ TBC, which is used as the inhibitor to prevent polymerization of Styrene in the storage tank, is“Incompatible with iron and carbon steel.”
+“Presence of rust (particles) inside the tank can form fertile seeds to initiate polymerisation.”[p.42]
Practices of the Plant Management:
It was obvious that the tank that had leaked was made of carbon steel. Since its internal surface was not coated with phenguard coating, its internal surface not only got corroded by reacting with TBC (resulting in the release of rust particles, i.e., iron oxide) but it also allowed adhesion of condensed styrene vapours on the inside roof of the tank and on the safety devises (such as the cooling system) inside the tank leading to build-up of polymer. If proper coating had been done on the inside surface of the tank, it could have prevented both corrosion inside the tank as well as adhesion of condensed styrene on the inside surface of the tank. Failure to prevent corrosion of the tank, which is a blatant violation of Standard Operating Procedure, resulted in Styrene being subjected to unwarranted reactions with iron oxides within the storage tank. The Styrene Producers Association (SPA) of Europe had anticipated this problem well before hand and had issued a warning to all concerned regarding this danger, which was as follows:
“Styrene will polymerise when contaminated by oxidising agents and most halides. The polymerization reaction is exothermic and … may become uncontrolled [violent]. If the heat is not removed, the bulk styrene temperature may rise to a level at which polymerization is self-sustaining and very rapid, evolving the release of large quantities of heat together with volumetric expansion.” [p.9]
This is precisely the manner in which Styrene vapours had escaped from the LG Polymers plant at Vizag. The management’s decision to disregard SPA’s warning was one of the causative factors that resulted in the disaster at Vizag for which the plant management has to be held accountable.
Inhibitor to Inhibit Polymerization
Recommended Procedures & Precautions:
“The most commonly used polymerisation inhibitor is tertiary butyl catechol(TBC).” [p.9]
The “inhibitor must be maintained at certain minimum levels to prevent polymer formation.” [p.12]
“The recommended practice is to maintain the inhibitor (TBC) levels between 10-15 ppm [of the Styrene in the storage tank].” [p.15]
“Facilities storing and handling styrene monomer should have TBC inhibitor on hand in case of emergency. “[p.13]
“At low TBC levels, oxygen depletion is rapid and the inhibition system will quickly become ineffective.”[p.15]
Practices of the Plant Management
One of the major problems that arose at the Vizag plant was the non-availability of adequate amount of the inhibitor TBC, which as per the Standard Operating Procedure should have been stored in adequate quantity at the plant site for emergency use. Since it was not available at the plant site on the day of the disaster, 500 liters of TBC was airlifted on 07 May 2020 from Vapi in South Gujarat (via Daman), which was about 1200 kms away. In addition, on 09 May 2020, another 8300 liters of TBC and other polymerization inhibitors were airlifted from Mundra in North Gujarat, which was over 1500 kms away from Vizag. Non-availability of TBC at the plant site prevented the maintenance staff from ensuring minimum level of inhibitor in the storage tank to prevent polymerization. [It is pertinent to note that: “Lower TBC levels can be accepted when the temperature is low…” [p.40], which highlights the need for keeping Styrene constantly under low temperature.] This costly lapse of failing to store adequate amount of TBC at the plant site was another causative factor that resulted in the disaster again due to the utter callousness on the part of the plant management regarding safety matters for which they have to be held accountable.
Oxygen to Support TBC
Recommended Procedures & Precautions:
+ “Styrene should never be handled under an oxygen-free atmosphere.”
+ “The presence of dissolved oxygen is required for the inhibitor to function properly…”[p.12]
+ “… a minimum oxygen level of 3 vol%. in the vapour phase is regarded as being sufficient…. More than 8 vol% of oxygen in the vapour phase can lead to a flammable mixture.”[p.12]
Practices of the Plant Management
Since excessive heat and pressure were generated in the storage tank, which resulted in the escape of Styrene vapours through the safety valve from the plant premises, it is evident that the storage tank did not contain the recommended oxygen level between 03% and 08% of the volume of styrene stored in the tank. The oxygen level apparently went down below 03% vol. or may even have gone down to 0% vol., thereby, rendering the inhibitor TBC completely ineffective, which accelerated polymerization of Styrene monomer that resulted in rapid rise in temperature and pressure in the storage tank. [It is pertinent to note that: “Refrigeration of the styrene and short residence time during storage will reduce the need for oxygen” [p.47], which again highlights the need for keeping Styrene under low temperature.] The absence of the recommended level of oxygen in the storage tank is yet another causative factor that resulted in the disaster. Therefore, the plant management is guilty of failing to ensure that the said storage tank contained the requisite level of oxygen to enable TBC to function effectively. The non-fulfillment of that task is an inexcusable lapse for which the plant management has to be held accountable.
Refrigeration to Lower Temperature
Recommended Procedures & Precautions:
+ “Styrene polymerizes slowly at normal ambient temperatures but very rapidly at elevated temperatures.”[p.13]
+ “Insulation and refrigeration of storage tanks are recommended for environments where temperatures exceed 75°F [above 24 degree Celsius]for long periods of time.” [p.22]
Practices of the Plant Management:
The average annual temperature of Vizag is 27.8 degree Celsius. Therefore, it was necessary to keep Styrene under refrigeration throughout the year preferably under 15 degree Celsius. However, in May, which is the hottest month in Vizag when the temperature sores up to 37 degree Celsius or more, the Styrene storage tanks were not under effective refrigeration. This was a clear violation of Standard Operating Procedure because the plant management was fully aware that Styrene polymerizes rapidly at elevated temperatures. According to a news report, “The leak was caused as temperature in the tank, storing styrene… reached 180 degree Celsius.”
If there was “A technical glitch in the refrigeration unit”, as was conveyed to the media, it was incumbent on the part of the plant management to have ensured that there was a standby refrigeration unit to meet emergency needs. Apparently, there was no such standby refrigeration unit at the plant – another costly lapse for which none other than the plant management is responsible. By failing to maintain temperature of the storage tank at around 15 degree Celsius, the plant management is guilty of allowing the temperature to rise to an extremely dangerous level of 180 degree Celsius, which was the most important causative factor that resulted in the disaster at the Vizag plant for which the plant management has to be held accountable. [In all probability, carbon monoxide (that TBC releases when subjected to high temperatures) must have been the other invisible “killer” gas that escaped along with toxic Styrene vapours from the leaking storage tank.]
Precautions against Stagnancy
Recommended Procedures & Precautions:
“Stagnant product must be avoided”. [p.9]
“Circulation [of liquid Styrene in the storage tank] should be a minimum requirement to make sure that:
Temperature readings are indicative for the bulk
Inhibitor and oxygen are mixed well with the tank contents.” [p.41]
“…the tank contents must be circulated frequently. Experience has shown that efficient circulation is also important to avoid a temperature gradient in the tank.” [p.47]
Practices of the Plant Management
Contrary to the said recommended procedures, the plant management had left Styrene in the storage tank in a stagnant state during the entire period of the lockdown, which has proved to be very costly. While in a stagnant state, the inhibitor TBC tends to settle down at the bottom of the storage tank, thereby, leaving the Styrene at the top to vapourize freely and self-polymerize. The report in TheIndian Express in this regard is revealing: “As the styrene was stagnant for 44 days, officials said, it was possible that some gas [vapours] accumulated at the ceiling of the storage tank and its temperature rose…” The Quint has also reported as follows: “Authorities have confirmed that the gas [vapour] leak took place because of a temperature difference between the top and bottom of a tank that contains the material styrene.”
The observation made by The New Indian Express too is very apt: “With the top portion polymerised and the bottom portion in liquid form…” The warmer portion of Styrene vapourized and polymerized to a solid state and the colder portion remained in liquid state because the contents in the tank were not in circulation and the top and bottom portions did not mix. The fact that two portions of Styrene in the tank were exhibiting two different temperatures is also proof that the refrigeration system was malfunctioning or was not in operation. The recommended procedure has categorically stated that in order “to avoid a temperature gradient in the tank”, the Styrene has to be periodically kept in circulation within the storage tank. Circulation was also necessary to ensure that the“Inhibitor and oxygen are mixed well with the tank contents”, i.e., Styrene.
When the contents of the tank are not in circulation, the temperature meter would give false reading, i.e., if at all the temperature was being monitored. Moreover, as a portion of Styrene was not under the influence of the inhibitor TBC and oxygen, the process of auto-polymerization of Styrene began and soon become uncontrollable. Therefore, the plant management is guilty of allowing Styrene to remain stagnant in the tank for over 44 days, which was yet another causative factor that resulted in the disaster for which the plant management has to be held accountable.
Instrumentation for Monitoring
Recommended Procedures & Precautions:
+ “The temperature needs to be monitored continuously.” [p.40]
+ “Pressure and temperature indicators are also advised and should be monitored regularly.” [p.56]
+ Styrene has to be analyzed for polymer content daily if the product temperature is above 25°C. [p.56]
+ “Determinations of inhibitor content, oxygen level in the vapor space, polymer content, and monomer temperature should be made on a routine basis.” [p.13]
+ Constant monitoring is necessary to ensure that “Polymer content of maximum 10 ppm” is never crossed. [p.11]
+ “The TBC content of styrene monomer in storage should never be allowed to be depleted or remain below the 10 ppm level.” [p.21]
Practices of the Plant Management:
The importance of proper instrumentation systems to constantly monitor the status of hazardous chemicals stored and utilized in a plant can never be overstated. There are several parameters of a tank storing hazardous chemicals that have to be monitored: temperature; pressure; level of contents; quality of contents; quantity of contents; etc. It is absolutely shocking to say the least that the maintenance staff and the plant management had no idea that the temperature and pressure of the tank were rising at an alarming rate. They had no idea that the polymer content in the tank had crossed the 10 ppm limit; that the TBC level had fallen below 10 ppm; that the oxygen level had gone down to 0% vol.; and that the inside surface of the tank had begun to corrode.
In short, during the entire lockdown period – from 24 March to 07 May 2020, i.e., for a period of 44 days – the plant management gave no instructions to the maintenance staff to submit status reports regarding the state of the contents in the storage tanks. Are they not bound to maintain proper log books to record the daily status of all the parameters mentioned? Considering the huge amount of hazardous chemicals stored at the plant site, the failure to constantly monitor the status of those toxic materials are important causative factors, which resulted in the disaster. Such costly lapses constitute nothing but absolute criminal negligence on the part of the plant management for which they have to be held accountable.
In short, the plant management is guilty of violating every standard operating procedure to safely store Styrene at the plant. Through willful negligence, they endangered the lives of over five million residents of the Vizag Metropolitan Region, the majority of whom had a miraculous escape while some were not so lucky to survive. Storing over 15,000 kiloliters of a highly hazardous chemical under dangerous conditions for 44 days was an extremely callous and criminal act for which the company and the plant management deserve exemplary punishment.
Apparently, there was no emergency response mechanism, including an emergency evacuation plan, in place at the plant. As pointed out in a preliminary study conducted soon after the Vizag disaster by Sagar Dhara (former Environment Engineering Consultant, UNEP) and Dr.K.Babu Rao (former Chief Scientist, IICT, Hyderabad), the absence of an emergency response mechanism was wholly contrary to the explicit provision under Section 15 (1) of the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989,which was as follows:
“Information to be given to persons liable to be affected by a major accident. (1) The occupier shall take appropriate steps to inform persons outside the site either directly or through District Emergency Authority who are likely to be in an area which may be affected by a major accident about-(a) the nature of the major accident hazard; and (b) the safety measures and the “Do’s and Don’ts” which should be adopted in the event of a major accident.” [p.8]
As per the above provision, “bystander populations should have been informed of the risk they were at, and trained in evacuation procedures in the event of an accident.” [p.8] [According to this study, the peak vapour concentration at downwind distance from 0.1 km to 01.00 km may have ranged between 312,000 ppm and 1100 ppm; from 01.00 km to 02.00 kms between 1100 ppm and 130 ppm; and from 02.00 kms to 06.00 kms between 130 ppm and 20 ppm. [p.4] (It may be noted that concentrations of Styrene above 700 ppm can prove fatal and above 20 ppm can cause injuries.)] However, there is no evidence that the bystander population were ever warned about the risks or trained in evacuation procedures. Moreover,
“The Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s (APPCB) Consent for Operations (CFE) Committee had passed an order in the period 1999-2000 stating that all facilities handling hazardous chemicals must put a board with a figure of the maximum vulnerable zone in the event of a catastrophic accident at their main gate and that is visible to public…. It appears that APPCB did not enforce its own orders.” [p.8]
In addition, if the maintenance staff at the plant had been alert and properly trained or if auto-rise-in-temperature alarms had been installed, they would have known that: “As soon as a temperature of 65°C has been reached [in the Styrene storage tank], it takes about 20 minutes before a complete runaway.”[p.42] Twenty minutes notice would have been adequate to sound the emergency alarm in order to warn the residents in the nearby villages to evacuate their homes to safety. However, as one news report has pointed out, the truth was “… the emergency detection system was either absent or malfunctioning.” The plant management has tried to explain away their criminally negligent conduct in this regard, which a news report has described as follows: “A LG Chem communications official told CNN that the plant’s alarm only activates if it detects a leak of raw Styrene in liquid form…” In other words, the plant management had not installed the requisite auto alarm systems to set off alarms incase of unusual rise in temperature or pressure in the Styrene storage tank. According to a BBC report, the emergency siren was probably not in working order since 2017.
The extent of their criminal neglect can be gauged by the fact that the plant management did not sound any emergency alarm even after it came to their notice that Styrene vapours had begun escaping from the storage tank around 02.30 am on 07 May 2020 despite being fully aware that inhalation of Styrene vapours could prove fatal to the unsuspecting residents living near the plant. By failing to have an emergency response plan, including an evacuation plan, the plant management is guilty of willfully flouting the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989. Instead of abiding by rules, which may have had mitigating effect, the plant management by their reckless conduct has actually compounded the impact of the disaster for which they have to be held accountable.
No Environment Clearance
Another disturbing factor is that the plant was operating for the last 14 years without proper “Environment Clearance” (EC) as per the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (2006) from the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. The plant management in fact admitted their culpability in this regard. In an affidavit filed before the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority, Andhra Pradesh, on 10 May 2019, one of the Directors of LG Polymers, PPC Mohan Rao, had made this admission:
“That prior environmental clearance was not taken for the said manufacturing activity as per provisions of Environment Impact Assessment 2006 … as no clearance was obtained….
“As on this date our industry does not have a valid Environment Clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority, for continuing our plant operations. However, we are continuing our plant operations with valid consent for operations from State Pollution Control Board, Andhra Pradesh [APPCB]. Further, I submit the conditions specified in the CFE/CFO have been fulfilled to the satisfaction of APPCB.”
How did APPCB grant Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) around the beginning of 2019 for the unit’s expansion? This question was raised by Dr.EAS Sarma, former Secretary in the Ministry of Power & the Ministry of Finance, Govt. of India. Soon after the disaster, in a letter to the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh on 07 May, 2020, Dr.Sarma, expressed his dismay at the goings on as follows:
“It appears that foreign companies like this one are moving into India as the Union Ministry of Environment, in the name of “easing business”, is progressively relaxing the environment clearance procedures and encouraging polluting industries to set up shop in the country, knowing well that even if they violate the law of the land, they will get protection from the official organs of the State.”
Delving further into the matter, D.Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum, has commented thus:
“The Bhopal Disaster triggered a slew of environmental regulations, especially as regards hazardous materials and industries using them. It is shocking, though, that almost four decades later, India is witnessing the same gross flouting of rules and regulations and, worst of all, a systemic collusion between regulatory agencies and corporate entities, making a mockery of these very protections for the environment and for people.”
He went on to add that:
“The most shocking aspect of the Vizag LG plant case is the scandalous violations of environment regulations by LG and the casual attitude or even collusion by the authorities…. These permissions by the APPCB, clearly bypassing the SEIAA, for which the APPCB acts as the Secretariat but without the powers of the Authority itself, are probably illegal, as affirmed by many experts in environmental law…. Yet, the case seems to have continued bouncing between Centre and state (Andhra Pradesh), and the application is apparently again pending with the Centre since March 2020. And all this time, LG Polymers has continued operating in Vizag without EC, but with a highly questionable permission from the APPCB!”
The manner in which LG Polymers has managed to circumvent the laws of the land to further its interests, highlights the inherent danger in attempting to water down the existing rules under “EIA Notification, 2006” through the proposed “Draft EIA Notification, 2020. In this regard, Raghunandan has noted as follows:
“Ironically this incident draws attention to the proposed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020… , which seeks to condone and give post-facto legitimacy to precisely the kinds of violations the LG plant committed.”
Impact on Environment
There was an inherent danger in storing huge quantities of Styrene. A forewarning of the potential threat if Styrene vapours escaped from such a storage facility was issued by the Styrene Producers Association of Europe in 2018. They had warned that:
“Styrene vapour is invisible, heavier than air and spreads along the ground. Therefore, it may travel a considerable distance to a source of ignition and then flashback.” [p.30]
If by chance the escaping Styrene vapours had come across a source of ignition, it was inevitable that the storage tanks containing Styrene would have exploded with extremely grave consequences. The telltale signs left behind in the village though which Styrene vapours traversed after it escaped from the plant is also indicative of the serious damage that Styrene could cause to the environment. According to The New York Times, “When a Reuters witness visited the Venkatapuram village adjoining the plant on Tuesday [11 May 2020], leaves on trees exposed to the gas looked shriveled and had turned brown.” A BBC report too has corroborated that: “…banana plants in surrounding farms had turned black and felt like stone.” One may well imagine the damage Styrene vapours would have caused to the lungs of those who had inhaled it!
Reportedly, the impact of the Styrene vapours was persisting even a week after the incident. Quoting the views expressed by experts from the High Powered Committee set up by the State Government in accordance with the directions of the NGT, a news report has stated as follows:
“…people returned to their homes have been experiencing nausea and difficulty in breathing and on Wednesday [13 May 2020] a housewife is reported to have fallen unconscious while doing household chores. She was rushed to the hospital and is recovering…. The expert committee has found that the chemical remnants were deeply ingrained into the land, water and the air and suggested that it is not safe to eat the vegetables or any other grains grown in these villages for at least a year. All the foods in storage in the houses during the leakage were thrown out and every item in households was thoroughly sanitized.”
Another report too had noted as follows:
“Locals claimed the reservoir [in the area] was affected due to leakage of chemical toxins from the plant as layers of particles were seen floating on it and it also resulted in the death of fish in the water body..”
These observations are more than sufficient to highlight the need to undertake a detailed environment impact assessment study to evaluate the extent and severity of the damage caused to the environment by the disaster and the remedial measures required for restoring the damage.
Culprits At Large
Although a First Information Report (FIR) was filed by the local police within five hours of the tragedy, the culprits who are responsible for causing the disaster are all still at large even two weeks later. For some strange reason, the police have refrained from identifying the toxic chemical that had caused the disaster. The crux of all that the police have stated in the FIR is as follows:
“At about 0330 hrs some smoke came out from the LG Polymers Company, due to the reason the neighbouring villages (were) affected and getting bad smell and the smell is [dangerous] to human life. Due to fear, all villagers ran…from the houses. In the incident, 5 persons died and the remaining people were admitted in hospitals as in-patients.”
The FIR was registered under Sections 278 (Making atmosphere noxious to health); 284 (Negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance); 285 (any act with combustible matter to endanger life); 337 (Causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others); 338 (Causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others); and 304-II (Knowledge that the act had likelihood of causing death) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, what is most notable is that not only are Sections 278, 284, 285 and 337 of IPC usually applied for relatively minor offences but also the fact that none of the culprits have been named in the FIR till date. Of course, the police may have been mislead into believing that the toxic vapours began to escape from the plant only at around 0330 hrs while subsequent reports show that evacuation of residents of RRV Puram village began at around 0230 hrs.
It is inexplicable why the offenders have not been charged also under Sections 325 (Punishment for voluntarily causing grievous hurt); 326 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means); 428 (Mischief by killing or maiming animals); and 429 (Mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc.) of IPC. Moreover, on the basis of prima facie evidence, the company and its top officials, including Vice-Chairman and CEO of LG Chem, Hak Cheol Shin; President and Managing Director, LG Polymers India, Sunkey Jeong; Director, Hyun Seok Jang; and General Manager and Director of Operations, LG Polymers, P.P. Chandra Mohan Rao, should have been immediately arrested because they have to be held absolutely liable for the disaster. The decision to impound the passports of all the directors of the company was, of course, a welcome step. The concerned members of the APPCB and the Department of Factories have also to be taken to task for gross dereliction of duty.
Thankfully, the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which took suo motu cognizance of the matter on 07 May 2020, has on 22 May 2020, issued an order, which is very significant. While dealing with a set of PILs, the Court directed that:
“The premises of the company shall be completely seized;
The surrendered passports of the Company Directors should not be released without the leave of the Court.”
The Court also expressed its dissatisfaction with the State Government and the Central Government for their failure to file replies to several issues raised by the petitioners. They have been given time till 26 May 2020 to do so. The next hearing is scheduled on 28 May 2020. Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which also took suo motu cognizance of the matter on 08 May 2020, has set up a Committee to prepare a report on all aspects related to the disaster and submit the same to the Tribunal. The Committee’s report too is awaited.
In a quick move to quell public anger, the Government of Andhra Pradesh announced a rather liberal compensation package on the very day of the disaster. Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy has announced Rs. one crore as compensation to the families of those who died because of exposure to the toxic vapours. Mr Reddy has also announced Rs. 10 lakh for those on ventilator support after exposure; Rs. 1 lakh for those who stayed in hospital for a day or two; Rs. 25,000 for those treated as out-patients after developing health complications; and Rs.10,000 to each resident of the five villages near the plant who suffered trauma. However, identifying the victims and determining the degree of injury of each of them would be a rather complicated process.
In addition, according to the same report:
“The Chief Minister said the government is preparing to issue health cards to these families to provide better health facilities and monitor their health for which village health clinics are going to be established.”
The decision of the State Government to issue health cards and monitor the health status of the Vizag toxic vapour victims are, indeed, very welcome steps. However, primary health centres are hardly equipped to properly carry out all the necessary investigations, diagnosis, and treatment as well as monitor the health status of those victims. Such tasks can be carried out in earnest only by specialists in well-equipped hospitals. Especially when the amount of compensation is tied to the degree of injury, there is a tendency to underplay the degree of injury as is evident in the Bhopal disaster case. Victims will also have to be compensated for loss of property (in the form of loss of standing crop; loss of domestic animals; contamination of land and water bodies; etc.) It is sincerely hoped such a mistake would not be repeated at Vizag. The long term impact of Styrene on the health and well-being of the exposed population is very worrisome and it is a challenging task before the State Government to handle the matter sensitively and with concern.
The causes and circumstances of the Vizag disaster of 2020 are almost similar to the Bhopal disaster of 1984. It is very evident that no lessons were learned from that traumatic experience 36 year ago.