Health

Vizag gas leak: Will the NGT penalty on LG Polymers act as a deterrent?

Though the cognisance of the offence is a welcome move, the court could have widened its scope to benefit many

 
By Soundaram Ramanathan
Last Updated: Friday 08 May 2020
Photo: Labeed Aliya / Twitter

The jury is still out on whether the National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s decision to levy a penalty of Rs 50 crore on LG Polymers India will set a precedent to prevent future disasters.

The principal bench of the NGT took a suo-moto hearing on the gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh on May 8, 2020, that led to the deaths of 11 persons and hospitalisation of hundreds.

Justice Adarsh Goel and the bench ordered LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd to deposit Rs 50 crore towards the damages caused to the environment and life prime-facie to the district magistrate.

The NGT issued orders under Sections 14 and 15 of the NGT Act, 2010. The bench also issued notices to Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), district magistrate of Vishakhapatnam, Central Pollution Control Board, Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd to respond.

The court also appointed a five-member committee of experts to report its initial findings on the causes of failure, extent of damage and remedial measures initiated in another 10 days.

However, the court did not make any mention of the two other industrial accidents that also happened along with Visakhapatnam on May 7.

Gas leaked at a paper mill in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, affecting workers who were housekeeping at the units. The third incident was at the Neyveli thermal power station in Tamil Nadu. Two boilers of 210-megawatt capacity blasted, injuring about 10 people.

The common thread running among these incidents was the poor operational and maintenance practices during the lockdown, besides shortage of skilled staff for maintenance work.

“Maintaining power stations or any industries with less staff is a risk and such incidents in this scenario are not surprising,” according to industry experts.

Though the cognisance of the offence is a welcome move, the court could have widened its scope to benefit many.

It could have directed the government to circulate an immediate directive to industries that all industrial units should ensure safety while resuming operations -- in case the lockdown continues, these safety precautions must not be negated.

The Court also did not clarify if the district magistrate can use the funds to initiate relief measures.

Violations in environmental clearances

Industries processing petrochemical-based products require two levels of clearances to function – one from the MoEF&CC and the other from the SPCB.

The clearance obtained from the MoEF&CC is called the ‘Environmental Clearance’ and that from the SPCB is the ‘Consent to Operate’ that needs to be renewed periodically in a span of five years.

An old company like LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd that has been operating even before the legislation of Environmental Impact Assessment would have to obtain the Environmental Clearance if it plans to expand its production, change raw material or modernise its units.

The firm has been producing different facts before various authorities to obtain consent from the states and has successfully brushed aside the need to carry out any impact and risk assessment studies. This negligence could also have been a potential reason for the disaster.

Timeline

  • 1960s – LG Polymers used to produce styrene from alcohols (oxo-alcohols) with SPCB permits
  • 1980s – Shifted to importing Styrene – with SPCB permits
  • Since 2004 – LG Polymers has been expanding production and seeking clearance from SPCB in different time spans for different product mix and marginal increased production levels (see graph below)
  • 2017 – SPCB warns the firm of the need for an EC, else it would not be granted consent. Company files a petition with MoEF&CC seeking Environmental Clearance.
  • Submits a petition to State Environment Impact Assessment Authority seeking Environmental Clearance under Category B, later requests forwarding the petition to MoEF&CC, saying it is a Category A plant
  • May 2017 – Company provides a proposal to SPCB saying it is importing plastic granules to prepare extended plastic which may not require an Environment Clearance and succeeds obtaining consent, brushing impact assessments studies.
  • 2018 – Withdraws the petition filed for Environment Clearance from MoEF&CC saying there were typo errors

 Year-wise consent given by SPCB on products which can be manufactured (capacity in tonnes per day)

 

“The plant, by failing to seek Environmental Clearance, has violated informing the competent authorities over two things: One is changing product mix and related impacts. The second is the expansion and importing,” DD Basu, advisor, Centre for Science and Environment, said.  

“Expansion means more storage. Importing means risk associated with transportation, handling in port related goods for loading and unloading the same in factory premises. In fact, the plant needs to apply afresh. Renewal of Consent to Operate is not the only issue. Since it has changed the product mix and production process, the risk associated with accidental release is more,” he added.   

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