LG Polymer Gas Leak – HRF Submission to High Power Committee

June 8, 2020

Submission made by Human Rights Forum (HRF) to the High Power Committee (HPC) probing the styrene gas leak on May 7, 2020 from the LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd (LGPI) plant at RR Venkatapuram in Visakhapatnam.

The Human Rights Forum is a citizens’ forum established with the objective of working for protection of Constitutionally guaranteed/internationally recognised rights of the people. Among other things, HRF works for the protection of the right to a clean and safe environment. We are a self-financed organisation whose members for the most part are from the professions of teaching, journalism and the law. 

HRF places before the High Power Committee several questions and suggestions regarding the functioning of the LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd (LGPI) in the context of the horrific styrene gas leak at its plant on May 7, 2020. The leak led to the death of 12 persons and over 3000 people were exposed to the toxic styrene gas.

Given the seriousness of the accident and the many human rights violations involved, LGPI should not only be heavily penalised, but its management and individual executives must be prosecuted under IPC and the other relevant laws. We cannot stress this enough. As events have unfolded so far, the owners and management have been merrily evading any kind of criminal liability. This amounts to a mockery of the existing legal regime meant to address such crimes and serves to encourage reckless indifference towards human lives and health.

HRF is of the opinion that there is no alternative to closing down the plant permanently. The land occupied by LGPI is ceiling surplus land that vested in the government. It should be resumed and utilised for genuine public purposes after assessment of soil and groundwater quality and their remediation by LGPI upto international standards. 

Despite the serious environmental and health hazards that running such a factory entailed, regulatory authorities all but abandoned their primary responsibility of protecting the environment and ensuring safety. As you are aware, LGPI has been operating without a valid, mandatory environmental clearance.

In fact, this was admitted by the company in a notarised affidavit dated 10 May, 2019. This is an astounding and patent illegality. These facts were in the full knowledge of the AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB) as well as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC). Yet, they abdicated their duty and did nothing. It is clear that concerned officers were thoroughly compromised.

Those officials responsible for this ought to be held accountable and proceeded against as per the law. They must be prosecuted for aiding and abetting corporate crime through deliberate neglect.

According to documents that are now in the public domain, the AP Factories Inspector had pointed out, in 2016, serious shortcomings about several tanks and other equipment in the factory from the point of view of safety. In what amounts to wholesome criminal negligence, the LGPI failed to rectify these. It was not adhering to safety protocols and there were several flagrant lapses.

On its part, the State Factories Inspectorate, which should have enforced safety rectification measures, failed to do so. In spite of glaring anomalies, LG Polymers was allowed to function. This has to be investigated and appropriate action taken. We stress this since time and again, in several disasters in and around Visakhapatnam, these regulatory bodies, steeped in corruption, have been emboldened because they have never been held accountable to the law.

The factory’s operation all these decades has led to unacceptable environmental and human livelihood costs but authorities have failed to initiate any action under the law. We also understand that several critical functions in the company that have a direct bearing on safety were under the supervision of and were being handled by persons who were completely unqualified for those tasks.

The APPCB issued Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) in 2017 and 2018 respectively for expansion of the factory without due application of mind. According to the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981, under which APPCB has been constituted, the Board has the responsibility of recommending rejection of such expansion in view of the heavy population density. This was not done.

Allowing expansion of the plant was clearly detrimental to life and livelihoods of thousands of people resident in the area apart from causing immense damage to local ecology.Are we to understand that the APPCB was not aware that LG Polymers was storing, using and emitting hazardous chemicals? Does the APPCB regard The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 as a mere piece of paper?

Was it not aware, as the AP High Court has observed in its order of 22 May, 2020, that “there are several hospitals, educational institutions, places of worship, railway station and airport within the vulnerable zone?” Yet, there has been no proper appraisal and LG Polymers has been allowed to function in open contempt of the law and safety regulations. 

The report of the committee, constituted by the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), that looked into the gas leak states that 800 tonnes of styrene escaped into the atmosphere on May 7. If 90% of this has gotten deposited within a 1.5 km range, the per capita dosage of the deposit works out to an exceedingly high level. It is imperative that this aspect is examined thoroughly. A comprehensive health impact study, both short-term and long-term, should be undertaken on people resident upto at least 5 km.

Morbidity from exposure to styrene gas is a long-term issue and needs urgent attention. No effort has been made so far to start an epidemiological study on exposure of humans. There is no other reported case in the world with such high levels of styrene release and exposure. This is also an opportunity to add to the knowledge in public health and medicine. We strongly urge the HPC to recommend a long-term study of the health of the exposed. We are of the opinion that the health impact study should not be planned or implemented by the LGPI as recommended by the NGT Committee but should be done by government institutions with active participation of civil society organisations.

And the work must begin right away. Given the fetotoxic nature of styrene, pregnant women must be identified and monitored without delay. The genotoxic properties of styrene make it imperative that the health impact study be carried out at least for the next 25 years and not just for 5 years as recommended by the NGT Committee.

Also, principles of absolute liability entail that the company should pay for all expenses and compensation related to the incident, and any relief to the affected persons provided by the government must be recovered from the polluter – i.e. LG Polymers. 

We are also unable to understand how the State Industries Department allowed LGPI to restart operations in early May this year, without ensuring that all safety measures had been taken. Pertinently, how were permissions to restart operations obtained? After the leakage of May 7, there was a virtual free run given to LGPI personnel.

This being a crime scene, the premises of the company should have been completely sealed and any attempt by interested parties to tamper with evidence obviated. What is more, styrene monomer was even permitted to be transported to South Korea!

All these are no mere irregularities, they amount to crimes and brazen statutory violations. It is not just those who own and run this company but also officials of regulatory authorities who have blood on their hands. For justice to be done and to ensure that such crimes do not recur, there must be a robust and meticulous investigation and all those responsible for this crime should be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We also want all the reports of the various committees appointed to probe the styrene leak to be put up for public comment before they are made final.

UG Srinivasulu (HRF State president)

K Sudha   (HRF State general secretary)                                     

VS Krishna (HRF AP & TS Coordination Committee member)

31-5-2020

Visakhapatnam

Address for communication:

VS Krishna

54-11-59/2, Gazetted Officers Colony

Visakhapatnam-530022

Ph: 9440411899

Email: vskvizag@gmail.com