Former Union Energy Secretary EAS Sarma alleged that the AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB) had allowed the company to operate despite protocols not being followed.

A cop being shifted to hospital by his colleagues after affected by gas in VishakapatanamImage: PTI
news Disaster Friday, May 08, 2020 - 09:04

Andhra's coastal city, Visakhapatnam, woke up on Thursday to horrific shrieks and heart-wrenching visuals of people falling down onto roads, as a poisonous gas leaked from LG Polymers Private Limited, a chemical plant.

It is located on the outskirts of the city, between RR Venkatapuram and Gopalapatnam. The incident occurred in the wee hours of Thursday even as the gas spread to neighbouring areas, for upto 4 km from the plant.

Within hours, the poisonous gas, identified as styrene, spread quickly, affecting hundreds of people and resulting in casualties. Officials have declared as many as 11 people dead as of Thursday.

Residents in neighbouring villages have complained about breathing complications, allergies and other issues. District authorities, who are on COVID-19 duty, have roped in police, medical staff, National and State Disaster Response Force (NDRF and SDRF), along with the navy, to tackle the situation. People were shifted to various hospitals within the city.

Officials have claimed that the incident took place as result of a temperature difference between the top and bottom of a tank that contains the liquid, leading to the formation of vapours which resulted in the release of the poisonous gas, styrene monomer.

Andhra Pradesh Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said that the state government would initiate criminal proceedings against LG Polymers, if they are found negligent by not following due protocols, while stating that the burden of proof lies with the management.

Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy announced a compensation of Rs 1 crore for the families of those who lost their lives in the incident, besides other solatium based on the effects of the gas leak, ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10,000. The Chief Minister said further action on the incident can be taken based on a committee report, while expressing that LG Polymers could have taken all precautionary measures given its ‘global reputation.’

Meanwhile, the Visakhapatanam police have filed a case against LG Polymers, under Sections 278 (Making atmosphere noxious to health), 284 (Negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance), 285 (Negligent conduct with respect to fire or combustible matter), 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), 304 (II) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code.

However, in the wake of the incident, several environmental activists and human rights groups have alleged that the company compromised standard safety precautions which led to the disaster.

Former Union Energy Secretary and environmental activist, EAS Sarma, alleged that the AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB) had given permission to the company to  operate with impunity. He sought action against the company and officials who compromised on regulations.

In a letter to Chief Minister YS Jagan, Sarma said, “LG Polymers is a South Korean company, constantly pampered by successive governments. It stands on government ceiling surplus land valued at hundreds of crores of rupees and the company had dragged the government into litigation, when the government tried to take back the land."

Sarma, a resident of Visakhapatnam, alleged that the officials gave Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) for expansion of the plant despite pending litigation. He said that officials allowed the highly polluting unit to expand close to residential areas without considering the consequences.

“It implies collusion between the officers and the promoters of the polluting industries. I would not be surprised if the promoters have had support from the political leaders of all hues,” he added.

Sarma alleged that the company was granted a ‘no objection certificate’ from the Union Ministry, stating that it was an ‘essential industry’ soon after the second phase of the lockdown ended. He said that encouraging activities such as liquor sales and industrial pollution weaken human immunity at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented crisis due to the spread of COVID-19.

He demanded that promoters and officials who allowed the company to flout norms be booked by the police and face a heavy penalty.

Meanwhile, the Joint Chief Inspector of Factories told TNM that the company was not in operation.

However, activists allege that the mishap took place as the company was doing a run-down to resume operations.

Pydiraju Marupilla, a senior leader from the Communist Party of India’s Visakhapatnam wing, said that the company has previously been accused of encroaching government lands.

He said, “It appears very much that they have not followed any safety guidelines, though they are saying that the company is out of operations for over 40 days. It is evident that this took place as they were making arrangements for resuming.”

He added, “It has to be asked why the company did not alert the locals when they were prone to such danger. This is criminal negligence.”

VS Krishna of the Human Rights Forum said, “The company was extremely irresponsible and negligent in the handling of hazardous chemicals. The company was absolutely not following the guidelines. The management is culpable to deploy unqualified persons to resume operations after such a long gap. They must be criminally prosecuted.”

He further added, “It's not enough to announce compensation to deceased people and formation of the committee without assuring the criminal prosecution of the responsible people to ensure them accountable.”

The activist alleged that officials of regulatory agencies have compromised with the company to flout regulations.

In a statement on Thursday, the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi said, "The problem began as a result of styrene gas not being stored at the appropriate temperature. This caused pressure to build up in the storage chamber and led the valve to break, resulting in the gas leakage.  The container that was being used to store styrene gas was old and not properly maintained."

It further said that there was no monitoring mechanism installed to specifically detect styrene in the plant either.

"What seems to be the case is that the plant management, in its haste to re-start the plant, ignored the protocol of doing maintenance of the plant before resuming operations. This, combined with the lack of proper storage of the gas – not maintained at the temperature required – and faulty fixtures could have resulted in the accident," it added.

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