Vizag Gas Leak: Its Impact, Legal Issues, Relief And Remedial Measures

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The Vizag Gas Leak happened on May 7, 2020. It happened in LG Polymers chemical plant near Gokalapatnam, Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. This incident resulted in the death of 13 people and sickness from gas exposure of 1,000 people. 

Background: Why it happened?

The plant was first established as Hindustan Polymers in 1961. Later it went on to merge with McDowell and Co. in 1978. In 1997, South Korea-based LG Chem acquired it and changed its name to LG Polymers India.

In May 2019, it came to light that LG Chem lacked official environmental clearance. Environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The first time the company applied for environmental clearance from Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board for expansion was also in May 2019.  

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The plant reopened on May 7 after the lockdown imposed in India due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 2,000 tons worth of styrene stored in the plant was left unattended. Styrene is an element used in manufacturing polystyrene. Storage of styrene should be between 20-22 oC, above which temperature it vaporizes. Now, there was a cooling system in place for the maintenance of the same. There are suspicions that this system had a computer glitch.

What exactly happened?

The styrene vaporized and leaked out, spreading to the nearby villages over a radius of 3 km. This was due to the computer glitch in the cooling system which was not attended. The villages of R. R. Venkatapuram, Padmapuram, BC Colony, Gopalapatnam, and Kamparapalem were most affected. People were rushed to hospitals. It was reported that they had difficulties in breathing and their eyes burned. There were 13 reported deaths by May 8. Over 1000 people suffered from gas exposure. The police ordered a precautionary evacuation on May 7 late at night in a 2 km radius.

Impact, relief and remedial measures

There were 13 reported deaths and over 1000 people suffering from gas-exposure sickness. After an inspection following up the leak, two experts appointed by the National Disaster Management Authority said that there was a risk of a leak of a much larger scale if the violated safety rules were ignored for long. The Andhra Pradesh government made the company move 13,000 metric tonnes of material out of India.

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Andhra Pradesh CM Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy revealed ex-gratia payments of 1 crore to families of the dead. Also, there would be distribution of sums of 25,000 rupees to those who underwent primary treatment. Moreover, it was said that 1 lakh rupees were distributed to those who got longer treatment, and 10 lakh rupees to be provided to those who had to be put on ventilator support was also announced.

The Andhra Pradesh government also airlifted 500 kg of PTBC. This was to neutralize the effects of gas leak from Vapi, Daman. To ensure precautions, LG Polymers bought a device called a styrene inhibitor to reduce gas leak risks in the future. It also dispatched an eight-member technical team to investigate and rehabilitation. They came from Seoul, South Korea.

Legal action, NGT decision and SC’s intervention

Legal Action 

The local police filed an FIR 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 substance), 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 337 (causing hurt by endangering human life or personal safety of others due to rash or negligent act), and 338 (causing grievous hurt by endangering human life or personal safety of others due to rash or negligent act) of the Indian Penal Code.

NGT’s Decision 

A petition filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) led to a hearing of the case on May 8, 2020. The bench ordered LG Polymers to deposit 50 crore rupees initially. This was to be given to Vishakapatnam for mitigation of damages. Notices were issued to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), seeking responses from the individual boards and the ministry. It also formed a five-member high-level committee. This was to probe into the matter. Supervision was by the former Andhra Pradesh judge, B. Seshasayana Reddy.

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The National Human Rights Commission of India sent notices to the Government of India and Andhra Pradesh. It classified the incident as a gross violation of the right to life. It sought a detailed report from the government of Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, it asked about rescue, medical treatment, and rehabilitation. They further asked to cover the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs’ investigation. The investigation was about the breach in workplace health and safety law.

The NGT ordered the framing of a restoration plan. They tried to finally quantify the damages to be paid to victims. Also, they decided to take action against officials responsible on June 1. It stated that the company has absolute liability.

The advocate for LG Polymers contended that the company could not mount a defense. This was due to sealing its records. The NGT inquiry report was published only 3 days before giving it inadequate time to respond. This led to the Supreme Court staying the order of the National Green Tribunal for 10 days on 15 June 2020.

What it means for India?

India has had a short journey with environmental law. We are still figuring out how to progress in the technological and industrial fields. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy and MC Mehta vs Union of India led to some innovation in the field. But, India has yet to go a long way. Environmental awareness is important, and accountability in cases like these is important. Multi-national companies who ignore safety procedures and regulations need to be held accountable. The path to progress cannot be without safety and care.


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