The Visakhapatnam plant of the South Korean company LG Chem had been operating without an environmental clearance for over a decade, as per its own admission.

Scores gathered outside the LG Polymers plant in VizagFile PTI
news Vizag gas leak Sunday, May 17, 2020 - 19:19

It’s been ten days since residents on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam woke up to toxic fumes enveloping RR Venkatapuram village in Gopalapatnam. The gas leak from the LG Polymers plant on May 7 left 12 people dead and sent hundreds to the hospital. 

It has now been alleged that the Vishakapatnam plant of the South Korean company LG Chem had been operating without an environmental clearance for over a decade. But even as residents are still mourning the dead, and many demanding that the plant be shut down permanently and shifted from Gopalapatnam, the Union Environment Ministry is scheduled to hear LG Polymers’ application for environmental clearance on May 19 - twelve days after the gas tragedy. 

As per a revised agenda of the Expert Appraisal Committee for the proposal involving violation of EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) Notification, LG Polymers application has been listed for hearing via video conferencing between 2.45pm and 5pm on May 19. 

LG Polymers had applied for environmental clearance as it was seeking to increase its production capacity from 415 tonnes per day (TPD) to 655 TPD. Its application had been pending before the Union Environment Ministry since last month

The scheduled listing confirms that LG Polymers violated environmental norms in the country, says Kanchi Kohli, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Research. “It is definitely coming up before the committee which is titled violations, it is recorded that it’s a violations project,” she tells TNM. 

Since the industrial accident, the clearances obtained by the Visakhapatnam plant, which has been in operation since 1965, has been under scrutiny. While LG Polymers has refused to entertain media queries, a 2019 affidavit by the Indian unit of the South Korean company, was revelatory. 

Officials were made aware in May 2019 - a year before the accident - by none other than LG Polymers that the Visakhapatnam plant did not have an environmental clearance from the Centre.

“As on this date our industry does not have a valid Environmental Clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority, for continuing operations,” stated LG Polymers in a notarised undertaking affidavit to the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) in Hyderabad on May 8, 2019. The affidavit signed by LG Polymers Director-Operations PP Chandra Mohan Rao was submitted to SEIAA while seeking clearance for expansion. 

An environmental clearance is mandatory for petrochemical industries as they are classified as highly polluting. The clearance is granted by the Union Environment Ministry after an assessment on the project’s impact on the environment and consulting residents living nearby. 

LG Polymers went on to state that it would be continuing its plant operations with “valid consent for operation from State Pollution Control Board, Andhra Pradesh”. 

But since the gas leak, it has emerged that the State Pollution Control Board’s permissions alone was not enough. 

History of the plant 

Located at Gopalapatnam, the petrochemical plant was established in 1965 by Hindustan Polymers Limited, which later merged with McDowell & Company in 1982. 

In 1997, LG Polymers took over the plant, manufacturing polystyrene and expandable polystyrene using imported styrene and  reprocessing of primary plastics into engineering plastics. While expandable polystyrene is used for electrical and electronics packaging among other things, engineering plastics is used as raw material for automobiles and electronic parts. LG Polymers obtained consent for establishment and consent for operation for the manufacture of polystyrene and expandable polystyrene from the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) in 2001 and 2002 respectively. 

Since then, the plant expanded its capacity to manufacture polystyrene from 235 tonnes per day (TPD) in 2004 to 313 TPD in 2012. It also expanded its capacity to manufacture expandable polystyrene from 45 TPD in 2004 to 102 TPD in 2012. For each expansion, it only received permission from the Pollution Control Board. In 2018, it began manufacturing engineering plastics at an installed capacity of 36.67 TPD, after receiving APPCB’s clearance. 

Confusion over environmental clearance 

Speaking to TNM an official in Andhra said the Visakhapatnam plant’s industrial activity did not require environmental clearance as per the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 1994 and 2006 as LG Polymers was not processing styrene and was only using it as a raw material. 

“LG Polymers was making polymer. They only needed Pollution Control Board clearance. When they had expanded units earlier, they had gotten clearance from APPCB,” said the Andhra bureaucrat. He said that it was only when LG Polymers wanted to manufacture engineering plastics in 2018 did it require environmental clearance. 

The Andhra bureaucrat’s claims, however, contradict the LG Polymers’ admission of violations in its 2019 affidavit. 

“That on my application for Environmental Clearance for enhancement in polystyrene and expandable polystyrene manufacturing capacity, it was noticed by concerned authority, state level environment impact assessment authority (SEIAA) that the present manufacture of polystyrene and expandable polystyrene is in operation without a valid environmental clearance (EC) and observed to be a ‘violation’ as per applicable statute in vogue," the company's affidavit says.

The reason LG Polymers admitted its violations was owing to a March 2017 notification by the Union government which allowed industries without environmental clearance a chance to apply for permissions. Although LG Polymers failed to apply within the six-month window, records show that it applied to the Union Environment Ministry on January 2, 2018. But a day later, withdrew its application.  

Months later, in April 2018, the company applied to the Andhra Pradesh State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority for environmental clearance. 

When SEIAA in September 2018 requested more information on its project, LG Polymers submitted a notarised affidavit in May 2019 admitting that it had no environmental clearance. The following month, SEIAA had directed the company back to the Union Environment Ministry for clearance.     

Suggesting that there was confusion over LG Polymers’ assessment, Geeta Menon, Joint Secretary, Environment Ministry told Hindustan Times, “This polymer plant is a very old project (dating back to) when the EIA [environmental impact assessment] notification was not applicable. Subsequently, they did get relevant permissions from the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB). They didn’t come to us but applied to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) for an environmental clearance in 2018. There was confusion whether they will be assessed by the state or by the environment ministry,” said Geeta Menon, adding that LG Polymers’ file had been forwarded by SEIAA only last month.  

Former Union Finance Secretary and civil society activist EAS Sarma, who has filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal, seeking damages from LG Polymers for contaminating the area, said there were lapses on the part of multiple agencies. 

“APPCB approval deals with water and air pollution laws. But it is desirable for APPCB to give approval only after environmental clearance. Also the factory was set up on the outskirts where population density was low earlier but has increased since then. There have been violations in urban planning approvals, if housing colonies were allowed to come up so close to the factory, sharing a wall with it. When the APPCB gave Consent For Establishment /Consent For Operations, they could have objected to expansion by pointing out that there’s a huge population nearby but they didn’t," Sarma said.

He also blamed the Union Environment Ministry for the accident, noting, “The regional office of the Environment Ministry is also accountable for not recognising the lapse.”

Kanchi Kohli concurs, stating, “The regional office of the Environment Ministry could have taken out suo motu monitoring exercise having known that it has come up before them and has withdrawn. I would put a huge onus on the Environment Ministry because the Central Govt has powers under the Environment Protection Act to protect the environment and all the regulatory procedures are under that law. So, the Environment Ministry could have taken proactive measures to avoid this incident  - both the legal violation and the accident.”  

With the application of LG Polymers seeking environmental clearance coming up before the Environment Ministry on Tuesday, what can residents who are demanding the closure of the plant expect?  

“It will be entirely up to the Environment Ministry and this committee to actually take all the events into account and all the demands have been made to work out the next steps for this company or project. It could directly ask for a closure, ask for them to do a public hearing, they could ask them to do a management plan plus a public hearing. It’s an open case right now,” said Kanchi.  

(With inputs from Jahnavi Reddy and Dhanya Rajendran)

 

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