One Year After LG Leak, Vizag Still Perched On An Industrial Tinderbox

It is one year since toxic styrene fumes leaked out of the LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd (LGPI) at RR Venkatapuram in Visakhapatnam. It led to the death of 15 persons and over 3000 people being exposed to the toxins apart from a wide area being contaminated.  However, there does not seem to be any lessons learnt since then and there is nothing that the government has done over the past year to inspire confidence. There is really no guarantee that such a horror would not visit Vizag yet again.

Environment regulation in respect of industries in and around Vizag remains miserable. In spite of brazen statutory violations by factories, regulatory bodies have time and again abdicated their duty and not carried out their brief. Though there are serious environmental and health hazards posed by the running of scores of industries, regulatory authorities like the AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB) and the Factories Inspectorate continue to jettison their primary responsibility of protecting the environment and ensuring safety. Inaction against such violations is a sure recipe for future accidents to occur. We recall that LGPI was operating without a valid, environmental clearance – a fact admitted by the company in a notarised affidavit a year before the leak. Yet, no action was taken then.

There are serious concerns about the continuing inaction on the part of State authorities. We recall that the High-Power Expert Committee appointed by the State government had made important recommendations such as the need for a comprehensive industrial safety audit of all hazardous industries in and around Vizag. Till date, no such audit appears to have been undertaken. Immediately after the LGPI leak, a similar but less fatal accident took place at one of the units at Pharma City. At a rough estimate, more than 30 accidents have occurred in this region during the last five years with loss of life. By not acting on the Committee’s recommendation, the government has displayed its lack of sensitivity to the welfare of the people residing in the vicinity of harmful units in the district.

In an interim order, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had directed the LGPI to deposit an amount towards its liability. HRF is however of the opinion that an independent expert institution needs to be entrusted with the task of determining the absolute liability in terms of the short-term and long-term health impacts, including possible incidence of carcinogenic diseases, on the people living within 7-8 km from the unit who would have been affected by the styrene gas. In addition, the liability must also include the impact on the health of the livestock, adverse impacts on the environment, including on water bodies such as the Meghadrigedda reservoir located nearby. The ‘polluter pays’ principle requires that the errant unit pay for the damage fully and also a deterrent penalty. 

As and when the liability is determined, if any amount in excess of the interim deposit ordered by NGT is to be recovered, the govt should make sure that there are assets of a corresponding value available at the site, to be seized and auctioned. Unfortunately, in the guise of shifting the styrene to avoid potential danger, LGPI was permitted to transport the stock to South Korea. We are still not sure whether the State has made sure that it will be able to recover the final liability amount from the company on the basis of the available assets.

It is also not clear if the events of May 7 last year have woken up the authorities to the potential danger of locating hazardous units near residential areas. The operation and expansion of such a large Red Category hazardous industry in close proximity to a densely populated region was highly undesirable. However, the plant has not even been shifted out. Moreover, the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change has been relaxing regulatory requirements under the guise of enhancing ‘ease of doing business.’ The MOEF&CC should revisit all such notifications, if it is at all concerned about the safety of the people.

The LGPI leak also raises a basic concern on allowing foreign companies to set up business in the State, when they do not display a sense of social responsibility. In this context, should not the Centre and the State revisit the decision to privatise Vizag Steel Plant and allow another South Korean company to become a co-promoter, replacing an excellent PSU like RINL?

HRF feels that the time has come when decisions on starting new industrial units should be based more on public approval rather than on someone from Delhi or Amaravati unilaterally deciding to start a unit in the name of inviting investment. Every such new investment must be subject to a comprehensive social-cost-benefit analysis and a genuine public consultation process before any decision is taken. The investment ought to be permitted only if the net social benefit is positive, subject to public endorsement.

 Many such concerns that the HRF and other concerned citizens and environmental organisations have raised over the past year have remained unaddressed. Vizag is still perched on an industrial tinderbox.

VS Krishna
HRF AP&TS Coordination Committee member

K Sudha
HRF AP State general secretary


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