A gas leak from the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam, which was operating without environmental clearance for over two decades, killed 12 people and sickened hundreds on May 7. Sumit Bhattacharjee reports on how gross human negligence and violations of rules and the law led to the deadly disaster
A little past 3 a.m. on May 7, Naveen (name changed) woke up smelling something different in the air. Feeling unsettled and a little afraid, he promptly woke up the elders in his family. “My uncle woke up in a daze,” Naveen recalled. “He was very disoriented and began stumbling around. We were at the door shouting for him to come out of the house with us. We ran for our lives, hoping he would follow us. But that was the last we saw of him.”
Naveen’s uncle, C. Gangaraju, only in his mid-thirties, was among the 12 people who died after inhaling the poisonous styrene monomer vapour that leaked from the LG Polymers plant in their village that night. His body was later found floating in a well in the backyard of their house. Gangaraju’s family said he may have lost his eyesight in the gas leak and stumbled into the well while trying to escape to safety.
Annepu Chandramouli, 19, a medical student and son of a police constable, had gone to bed late that night after studying. Minutes later, he was jolted out of sleep by the vapour. “His eyes were watering and he was unable to breathe. He was disoriented and ran towards the balcony. He toppled over the railing and fell to his death from our apartment on the second floor,” his relative said.
Chaos, confusion and fear reigned that night in R.R. Venkatapuram village, located in Pendurthi Mandal in Visakhapatanam district of Andhra Pradesh. Within hours of the leak, which began at 2.50 a.m., 12 people had died and over 580 were hospitalised. Over 2,000 people were evacuated between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. from the villages surrounding the chemical plant within a radius of 1.5-3 km. These villages include R.R. Venkatapuram, SC/BC Colony, Nandamuri Nagar, Kamparapalem and Padmanabhanagar, which together have more than 20,000 households.
The death toll could have been much higher if an alert resident hadn’t woken up to see a thick cloud of gas enveloping houses in the area. He quickly woke up the residents of the village and told them to run for their lives. Soon, word about a gas leak spread like wildfire, and hundreds of residents poured out of their homes, carrying their children in their arms, and into the darkness.
But as people began running, they started inhaling more and more of the toxic fumes. Styrene monomer is a colourless and inflammable gas. Inhaling it for a short period of time causes irritation in the eye, respiratory problems, nausea, unsteady gait, loss of consciousness and gastrointestinal effects. Many who ran out collapsed on the ground. A few young men hopped on their motorcycles in desperation to drive away, but they were too disoriented to ride for more than a few hundred metres, recalled Pydapa Naidu, station house officer of the Gopalapatnam police station. Naidu was among the first to reach the scene on a rescue mission.
A long night
The police control room, around 10-12 km from the plant in the city, received the first distress call at around 3.26 a.m. It immediately alerted the Gopalapatnam police station, under whose jurisdiction the area falls. A police team of eight men, including Naidu, Sub-Inspector Satyanarayana and Inspector Bhagwan, reached R.R. Venkatapuram at 3.45 a.m. The Deputy Commissioner of Police of Zone-II, Uday Bhaskar, was alerted by the Commissioner of Police, Rajiv Kumar Meena, at 4 a.m. Bhaskar reached the spot by 4.30 a.m. and found the Gopalapatnam team in the area. The Commissioner reached the spot 15 minutes later, and both the officers led the team of 15 men on the rescue operation. Their initial two attempts to enter the core area from the national highway side failed as the wind blew the toxic fumes in their direction. “We realised that it would be futile to enter through the main entrance, so we took a detour and entered the core area from behind the chemical plant,” Meena said.
Protocols that were in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were suspended by the police team. The police entered the area with just wet towels wrapped around their faces. That is when they realised the gravity of the situation. “We saw people lying unconscious on the road. We had a tough time picking them up from the road and getting them into our vehicles. The lanes were narrow and our vehicles could not enter them,” Bhaskar said. “We shifted them to hospitals ourselves as ambulances had not arrived yet.”
It was only at around 6 a.m. that ambulances and Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) buses reached the area. Around 10 police vehicles, 20 ambulances and 10 APSRTC buses were used to ferry the victims to government hospitals.
Many policemen, including Naidu and Satyanarayana, said they suffered bouts of vomiting during the rescue operation. The entire 15-member team was hospitalised later and a few of them are yet to recover fully, said police officials. At 6.45 a.m., a National Disaster Response Force 10th Battalion team arrived at the spot. By 7 a.m. they swung into action, wearing gas masks and carrying oxygen cylinders on their backs. “In many houses, the residents were trapped inside or were lying unconscious,” said Commandant Zahid Khan, who led the team. “We had to forcibly enter several houses. We rescued about 300 people trapped inside.”
History of the plant
The LG Polymers plant, owned by the South Korean firm LG Chem, has changed hands several times since its inception. It was first established by the Mumbai-based Shriram Group in 1961, under the name Hindustan Polymers, to convert alcohol from molasses in order to produce styrene. Styrene is mostly used in the production of polystyrene, which is used to make the parts of appliances, electronics and automotives; and also in food packaging. The Andhra Pradesh government then sold 216 acres of endowment land belonging to Simhachalam Devasthanam in the sparsely populated R.R. Venkatapuram village to the Shriram Group. In 1971-72, the management expanded its operations and began manufacturing polystyrene.
In 1978, the plant was taken over by McDowell and Company Limited of the United Breweries (UB) Group, owned by Vittal Mallya and Vijay Mallya. The UB Group began to manufacture expanded polystyrene. In the early 1980s, the manufacture of styrene was stopped when the UB Group found it less expensive to just import styrene from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
LG Chem purchased the plant in 1997. It dismantled the old styrene plant and began storing imported styrene in a few tanks, one of which malfunctioned on the fateful night of May 7. The tank had a capacity of 2,400 mt. On the night of the incident, it contained about 1,800 tonnes of styrene monomer, company officials said. But LG Polymers, which is facing flak for what appears to be sheer negligence and lack of oversight by the company, refused to take questions despite repeated attempts during that period. It shipped about 13,000 tonnes of styrene from the plant to South Korea immediately after the incident.
Findings of the NGT committee
Following the incident, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) took up the case suo motu and constituted a five-member joint monitoring committee to conduct a probe. The committee, comprising a former High Court judge, a principal of a college, a professor of chemical engineering, and two scientists, investigated the incident and found several glaring lapses at the plant. The NGT imposed a fine of ₹50 crore on the plant under the liability clause.
The committee said that the vapour leak occurred due to self-polymerisation of styrene monomer. P.P. Jagannadha Rao, professor of chemical engineering and member of the NGT’s joint monitoring committee, said styrene needs to be circulated constantly to keep its temperature under control. However, with operations at the plant coming to a grinding halt due to the nationwide lockdown, the stock of 1,800 tonnes of styrene monomer remained stagnant. This could have led to a Diels-Alder reaction resulting in self-polymerisation, he said. “As there was no apparatus to record the change in temperature in the upper part of the tank, the styrene reached its onset temperature, which is 66°C, over a period of time. Once it reached the onset temperature, it took 15-20 minutes to reach boiling point, which is 145°C. According to our findings, this is how the vapour formed and leaked out of the gooseneck and dip hatch of the storage tank.”
In its report, the committee also pointed out that the company did not have enough tertiary butyl catechol (TBC), which is used as an inhibitor to avoid self-polymerisation and which lowers the temperature inside the plant. The ideal temperature for storing styrene is 15-18°C and at no point can it be allowed to exceed 25°C. “Since there was no stock of TBC, it is possible that the styrene monomer reacted inside the storage tank, triggering a polymerisation reaction which resulted in the formation of vapour, due to a rise in temperature inside the tank,” Rao said.
The experts also pointed out that there was no system to monitor dissolved oxygen in the vapour space. As a result, the level of oxygen might have fallen below 6%, they said. “If the oxygen level falls below 6%, that is a clear indication of self-polymerisation. There was no mechanism in place to detect this and prevent it from happening. The plant was in lockdown for over 45 days. The reaction would have started at least a week or 10 days ago,” Rao said.
The tank from which the vapour leaked was an old one. Its upper and middle parts did not have a temperature monitoring apparatus. It only had a sensor in the lower part. The experts said refrigeration for styrene storage should run round the clock, but according to the NGT report, the refrigeration system had not been operated 24 hours prior to the incident. The NGT report also stated that the person in-charge of the plant and the maintenance personnel of the storage tank were negligent.
LG Polymers had also been operating without the requisite environment clearances. In an affidavit dated May 10, 2019, in response to a query from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority, the company admitted that it had been operating the plant from 1997 to 2019 without obtaining the necessary environment clearances. The affidavit read: “The unit did not have environment clearance substantiating the produced quantity issued by the competent authority for continuing operations and was operating based on consent given by the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB).”
Former Secretary to the Union government and social activist E.A.S. Sarma, who filed a plea before the NGT regarding the damage caused to public health and the environment due to the leak, sought to know how the APPCB had granted consent for establishment and consent for operation in the beginning of 2019 for the unit’s expansion and how the company had continued to function without obtaining environmental clearance from the Union Environment Ministry.
Concerns over health, livelihood
While the short-term effects of inhaling styrene monomer are clear, there is no detailed study on the long-term effects. Endocrinologist G.R. Sridhar said most chemicals are carcinogenic. Styrene is dangerous; studies have shown it produces lung cancer in rodents, he said. “However, experimental and clinical evidence show that humans are not at increased risk of developing lung cancer (if they inhale styrene). Biochemical, genetic and clinical studies over 20 years do not show chronic exposure to styrene to be associated with the risk of developing lung cancer,” Sridhar said. However, he added that this incident could be a case study for the future. The health condition of the affected should be monitored over the next two generations, he said. In the last three weeks, Y. Kanakaraju, 45, and P. Venkayamma, 72, have died from exposure to the gas. They were reportedly affected by the May 7 gas leak, admitted to hospital and discharged, only to be readmitted with some illness. However, the Superintendent of King George Hospital, G. Arjuna, said the cause of their deaths can be ascertained only after a post-mortem.
Drawing parallels between the LG Polymers incident and the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, social activist and founder of Sambhavna Trust Satinath Sarangi said that the NGT report neither mentioned styrene oxide (produced when styrene mixes with oxygen in the air), which is extremely toxic, nor the impacts of exposure to styrene on foetuses and genetic formation. “Most importantly, the NGT report entrusts LG Polymers to carry out a risk assessment disaster management study. The company has been asked to conduct a health monitoring programme for at least five years. This is somewhat like sending the fox to guard the hen house,” said Sarangi.
The social activist is also critical of the Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to pay ex gratia of ₹1 crore to the next of kin of the deceased as well as compensation to survivors. “Like in Bhopal, public money is being used by the government to provide compensation to the victims’ families and to the survivors. Why should the public pay for a crime committed by a corporate company? According to the report of the NGT committee, around 800 tonnes of styrene may have escaped into the atmosphere on May 7. If 90% of this got deposited within a 1.5 km range of the plant, the per capita dosage of the deposit is of an exceedingly high level. This aspect must be examined thoroughly. A comprehensive health impact study, both short term and long term, should be undertaken on people living up to at least 5 km from the plant,” he said.
Apart from concerns over health, there are also concerns in the affected area over livelihood. Agriculture is the main source of income for around 400 families in the affected area. Nearly 20% of the crop grown in about 800 acres is sold in the city. A variety of crops such as paddy, sugarcane, brinjal, tomatoes, different varieties of leafy vegetables, gherkins, ladies finger, plantains and millets are grown in this area. Since styrene vapour is a heavy gas and it settles down fast, officers from the Agriculture Department have instructed farmers to destroy the standing crop and told them not to undertake sowing till further clearance is given. “We have lost a large quantity of crop and we are unsure whether we can sow crop by the time monsoon comes. Our livelihood has taken a huge hit. We have also lost our livestock,” said Rapparthi Appanna, a farmer from R.R. Venkatapuram.
Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation Commissioner G. Srijana said the residents have also been instructed not to use groundwater or the water from the neighbouring Meghadrigedda reservoir till the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute deems it safe for consumption.
Lack of proper urban planning
In 1961, when Hindustan Polymers was set up, the plant was located outside the city. Only the sparsely populated village of R.R. Venkatapuram was in its vicinity. Today, R.R. Venkatapuram is no longer a village. It has more than 100 pucca houses, including apartments. Over the years, several colonies have sprung up around it. It is estimated that over 40,000 people live within a 3-km radius of the plant. Apart from LG Polymers, industries such as HPCL (established as Caltex Oil in 1957) and Coromandel Fertilizers (established in 1961) were located on the outskirts of the city. But now the city has grown rapidly and colonies have come up around these industries. Environmentalists and social activists said there is no urban planning.
“Normally, when cities are planned, industries are located on one side and the city expands towards the other. But in the case of Visakhapatnam, industrial growth is scattered in all directions. So, we find industries, including hazardous ones, amidst the habitations today,” said N. Kalidas of the Institute for Solid Waste Research and Ecological Balance.
Visakhapatnam is shaped like a bowl, with the Bay of Bengal on one side and mountains surrounding it on all three sides. Urban planners feel that industries should have been planned outside the hills; instead, most of them are located within the ‘bowl’. “Industries should always be located on the leeward side and not on the windward side. But here, there are industries on both sides,” they said.
After hearing the NGT report, a Bench headed by the chairperson of the NGT, Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, held on June 1 that LG Polymers India has absolute liability for the loss of life and the impact on health and environment caused by the leakage of styrene monomer vapour. The NGT directed the constitution of a committee comprising representatives from the Union Environment Ministry, the Central Pollution Control Board and the State government to prepare a restoration plan within two months. Taking cognisance of the fact that the company did not get proper environment clearances from the Union Environment Ministry but was functioning with permission only from the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, the NGT has directed the Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary to take action against the persons responsible for allowing the factory to operate without the requisite environmental clearance. With rights groups demanding the closure of LG Polymers, Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has asked a high-powered committee, set up indepdently of the NGT to probe the incident, to submit a report with its recommendations. He has said that the plant will either be closed down or shifted elsewhere depending on the committee’s suggestions. He has also asked the committee to conduct a study of the hazardous industries in the State and recommend suggestions for a new industrial policy.
Meanwhile, fear continues to grip R.R. Venkatapuram. “I have cleaned my house with sodium hypochlorite, but my clothes and all the things in my house still smell of the vapour,” said P. Devudu, a resident. “It looks as if the May 7th incident will continue to haunt us for a long, long time.”
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