Why did the gas leak happen? Did the company flout any safety norms? Could this accident have been averted?
So many questions being asked as the horrific shrieks of the people in Andhra Pradesh’s coastal city Visakhapatnam is still fresh in our minds.
The gas leaked on Thursday, 7 May, from LG Polymers Private Limited located between RR Venkatapuram and Gopalapatnam, and has killed at least 11 persons and 300 persons have been hospitalised.
It was a call from a citizen that alerted state authorities about the leak from the factory that was planning to restart operations, said officials. Within an hour, people living in a 1-1.5km radius were evacuated. Houses which were shut were broken into to find people who had fainted indoors.
The incident occurred at around 3 AM and the impact of the gas was felt for up to 5 kilometers from the plant.
The Quint spoke to industry experts to understand what went wrong and what are the solutions proposed to avoid such a mishap.
‘Management Made a Mistake’
Authorities have confirmed that the gas leak took place because of a temperature difference between the top and bottom of a tank that contains the material styrene. This led to the formation of vapours which were released in the air.
The plant makes polystyrene, a versatile plastic used in fibre glass, rubber and latex and for making toys and appliances. The styrene material, a highly flammable liquid, is usually kept in a cold storage space that is completely refrigerated.
Several industry experts pointed out that this was a human error that caused this tragedy.
The factory had been shut down since 22 March, when the nationwide lockdown was announced. But everyday, over 45 persons were working on different shifts to ensure maintenance and stabilisation of the refrigeration of the tanks, said an official.
The company was granted a ‘no objection certificate’ from the union ministry, stating that it was an ‘essential industry’ so that they could reopen, said experts.
Gangarao of the CITU, Visakhapatnam told that there are over 150 permanent workers and 350 casual and contract workers in the company.
“Management made a mistake by using contract workers for these works,” he said.
Recounting the incident he said, “At the time of the leak there were 20-25 contract labourers inside the factory. They were not aware at first and were not affected as they were inside but the gas had begun spreading to the nearby residential areas.”
He also pointed out that the tanks were storing over 1,800 tonnes of styrene. “Over the (lockdown period of) 45 days, the liquid had become heavy and so this chemical reaction happened and the vapours were released,” he said.
Officials of the Andhra Pradesh Department of Factories and LG Polymers have used the neutralising materials - N-dodecyl mercaptan (NDM) and 4-tert-Butylcatechol (TCB) - to dilute the vapours, said sources in the industry.
‘Haste to Restart’
In a statement on Thursday, the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi said, “The container that was being used to store styrene gas was old and not properly maintained.”
“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.”Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi
LG Polymers’ Stand
Mohan Rao, the Managing Director of LG Polymers, had issued a statement outlining that at least 15 persons, including security and operating managers, are present each shift to keep a watch over the refrigeration and monitoring systems.
“The vapours from the hydrocarbons have polymerised on the roof of the tank and then fallen back into the tank. This occurred due to lack of movement in the tank combined with the UV light which fell over the tank during the lockdown period,” he said.
“Typically there are certain chemical inhibitors added to control this reaction, however there was stagnation of the substances inside the tank due to the lockdown which caused this reaction to occur,” he said.
“There has never been any residual material [causing photopolymerization] in the tank all these days, this is the first time this has happened because there has been stagnation due to the lockdown.”
‘Compromise on Safety, Pollution, Workers’
In a letter to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy, Former Union Energy Secretary and environmental activist, EAS Sarma, alleged that the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) violated protocols and had issued permission to the company to operate with impunity.
“LG Polymers is a South Korean company, constantly pampered by the successive governments. It stands on government ceiling surplus land valuing hundreds of crores of rupees and the company had dragged the government into litigation, when the government tried to take back the land. Despite this, how did APPCB grant Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) around the beginning of 2019 for the unit’s expansion? APPCB did not apparently take clearance either from the State govt or from the Union Ministry of Environment.”EAS Sarma, Former Union Energy Secretary and environmental activist to The Quint
He explained how the Central Pollution Board had analysed a few years ago that the Visakhapatanam industrial belt was highly polluted and so there was a ban on new industries. However, a few companies approached the board to allow expansion.
“One, this is an old unit and there are five to six villages around the area. And also, you don’t usually give permission to expand such an industry with heavy pollution load,” he told The Quint.
“The Pollution Control Board should have hesitated and assessed the environmental impact and then discussed with the public about the impact. But none of that was done.”EAS Sarma, Former Union Energy Secretary and environmental activist to The Quint
He has filed a report with the National Green Tribunal seeking action against the company and officials who compromised on regulations.
“All these companies are cutting corners to maximise profit, in terms of safety, pollution and workers,” said Sarma.
How to Avoid Such Offset Emergencies?
V Sriram, an industry safety expert explained how no company would wish for an accident and in such a chemical company, it is necessary to have stringent safety measures in place to avoid mishaps.
Proposing preventive solutions, Sriram said that when the plant was set up in 1961, there weren’t as many residential colonies in the vicinity.
“If it is a natural calamity, you will get a warning a day before and then you can evacuate. But that is not how a chemical accident happens,” he explained.
“In order to avoid an offset emergency, the government should not allow (residential) development near the factory. Or just give the company the permission to own the land around the factory. So, the damage and casualty will be very less.”V Sriram, Industry Safety Expert
He also proposed that, “Instead of storing in one single tank, the factory should divide it into ten tanks. So each of them can be refrigerated individually. And a few spare tanks should be kept in place, just in case of such an emergency.”
Gangarao also told that in the past people living near the factory have protested against the plant but no action was taken to address these concerns. He condemned the centre and state, who are issuing consolation messages now, to have been more stringent in their assessment of companies, so that this could have been avoided.
“The culture of safety in India and in this region has been very poor. I don’t think India will ever be ready to be safe enough for a nuclear industry.”EAS Sarma, Former Union Energy Secretary and environmental activist to The Quint
He elaborated that around 30 to 40 accidents have taken place in the past in these outskirts, resulting in the loss of so many lives. “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 wrote in his letter to the chief minister.
The Quint reached out to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board on what it believed to be the cause for the leak but there has been no response so far. This story will be updated as and when the Board responds.
Meanwhile, the 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.
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.
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