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Vizag gas leak very similar to Bhopal tragedy. India must probe before blaming workers

The leak of styrene gas at LG Polymers' plant in Vizag, which killed 11 people, is a reminder of the folly of seeing environmental due diligence as an impediment to economic activity.

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It is time to retire the trite stories about clear skies and clean rivers because of the economic lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. As environment ministers and state governments make it easier for businesses to restart, the toxic gas leak at LG Polymers’ polystyrene plant in Vizag — killing 11 people and exposing 1,100 to the styrene gas — has reminded the world of the folly of viewing environmental due diligence as an impediment to economic activity.

The Vizag gas leak, its causes and the reactions of the management and state are disturbingly similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy. This shows that no good lessons have been learnt from the 1984 Union Carbide disaster. Worse, corporations and the administration continue to deploy untruths, and non-scientific and empty reassurances to underplay the incident and its systemic causes.

Also read: How styrene, chemical being blamed for Vizag gas leak deaths, affects human body

What we know

LG Polymers has claimed that styrene gas began leaking around 2.30 am from a storage tank containing 1,800 tonnes of the volatile compound. The gas spread through five densely populated villages in Gopalapatnam, killing people and cattle, including buffaloes, dogs and even birds. The air remained dangerously polluted until at least 6.30 am.

Like in Bhopal, there was no warning from the factory.

The company statement claims that stagnation and changes in temperature inside the storage tank could have resulted in auto polymerisation and caused vaporisation.

By 10.30 am, police commissioner R.K. Meena had declared that the gas was “non-poisonous.” The Andhra Pradesh Police was also advising people to drink milk and eat bananas and jaggery “to neutralise the effect of the gas”.

Also read: 7 workers fall ill after inhaling poisonous gas at Chhattisgarh paper mill

Lessons from Bhopal, or not

The company’s explanation and the commissioner’s assurances are dubious. But like with Bhopal, in Vizag too, the company and the state appear to be underplaying the toxicity of whatever it is that was in the air.

Borrowing from Union Carbide, LG Polymers’ spin-doctors too have begun pointing fingers at workers for the disaster.

An article in Business Today quotes an unnamed “senior official” to claim that the “the valve controls for the gas were not handled properly and they burst causing the leak.” Unless challenged at the outset, the “mishandling” will be deftly palmed off as a worker error.

The kinds of fatalities – 11 people and several cattle and animals dead at the time of writing – raises questions of whether the toxic agent was really styrene.

Background concentration of styrene in urban air is between 0.06 and 4.6 parts per billion. Styrene toxicity has been recorded mainly among workers and not the general population. But even among workers, there is no record of deaths due to inhalation of styrene. The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry records that workers exposed for four hours to 800 parts per million – 1,80,000 times higher than background – experienced nasal irritation. The levels required to kill adults and buffaloes outside the fence-line is bound to be incredibly high.

If it was indeed styrene, then what quantities were released and how did styrene – a dense gas – spread at lethal levels over several kilometres?

Also read: Bhopal gas leak: Supreme Court can now undo collusion between Union Carbide, Indian govt

Ease of doing business

Indian environmental and labour safety regulators at the Centre and states are notoriously business-friendly.

According to Ganga Rao, a CITU member who used to be associated with the workers union in LG Polymers, the company had a cushy relationship with state regulators. “The company obtained permission over the phone to restart the factory two days back. The factories inspector and PCB (Pollution Control Board) did not inspect the plant that has been lying idle for 40 days,” he said.

In another similarity with Bhopal, LG Polymers too handed over critical operations to untrained casual workers. “There are only 50 permanent workers while contract and casual workers number around 350,” says Rao. “When the leak happened, there were only 15 workers on site and all were casual staff with no experience in re-starting a polymer plant,” he said.

Bhopal and now Vizag have made painfully clear that the erosion of workers’ rights and employers’ obligations could have fatal implications for workers and surrounding communities.

Also read: Abdul Jabbar, Bhopal gas tragedy’s oldest activist, turned ailing survivors into warriors

Runaway reaction

In Bhopal, the magnitude of the disaster was a direct result of storing large quantities of a volatile toxin in a densely populated location. LG Polymers claims that the source of the leak is its storage tank, and that prolonged disuse had created conditions that led to the disastrous leak. The Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, stipulate exacting conditions for storage of chemicals like styrene. Clearly, laws without enforcers are as good as no laws.

Ignored warnings

LG Polymers is no stranger to controversy. In 2000, a reactor blast shook the surrounding villages and fuelled their anxiety. People ran away, and no lives were lost. In 2017, after repeated complaints to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board failed to provoke any reaction, villagers made a representation through Rajya Sabha MP Subbarami Reddy. “Predictably, the PCB came, inspected and gave a clean chit to LG (Polymers).”

Coming as it does at a time when labour and environmental laws are being diluted for the ease of doing business, the Vizag disaster should teach us that more democracy, more public participation and more security for workers is the only way truant corporations and pliant regulators can be reined in.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist and a long-time volunteer with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Views are personal.

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  1. This looks like Bhopal (1984)…rather Bhopal 2.0. I hope that those who are charged, actually see the inside of a courtroom, and go to trial. No one wants a repeat of Union Carbide Chemical in Bhopal.

  2. Everyone should remember coward Congress government let the leader of Uion Carbide secretly fly away without any prosecution.Nobody in Congress raised their fingers to stop extradition this way?All members of Congress are treasury looters and corrupt.Hope BJP prosecute after leagal battle and convict if found negligible the directors of this South Korean company.

  3. How to protect from inflammable gas leaks?
    Do small Homam fire, in home, close all doors and windows. Fire in Home small like Homam can burn gases and remove poisonous gas in home, prevents deaths. Wear N95mask or moist Cloth mask until the poisonous gas level decreases in air
    Dr G Gangadhar Rao

    ఆంధ్రప్రదేశ్ని, సాగర తీరం విశాఖలో పరిస్థితి ఇప్పుడు ఆందోళనకరంగా మారింది. సౌత్ కొరియా కు చెందిన ఫార్మా కంపెనీ ఎల్జీ పాలిమర్స్ లో గ్యాస్ లీక్ కావడంతో దాదాపు 5 గ్రామాల ప్రజలు శ్వాస సంబంధిత ఇబ్బందులు పడుతున్నారు. అపస్మారక స్థితిలోకి ప్రజలు వెళ్ళిపోయారు. గ్యాస్ ప్రమాదంతో కళ్ళు కనపడక ఇద్దరు బావిలో పడి చనిపోయారని తెలుస్తోంది.

    అదే విధంగా కొంత మంది రోడ్ల మీద పడిపోయారు. మూగ జీవాలు కూడా ప్రాణాలు కోల్పోతున్నాయి అని సమాచారం. 10 కిలోమీటర్ల వరకు గ్యాస్ విస్తరించే అవకాశం ఉందని అధికారులు చెప్తున్నారు. కొంత మంది దగ్గుతో మరి కొంత మంది కడుపు నొప్పి, కళ్ళు మంటలతో కళ్ళు తిరిగి పడిపోయారు. రెండు వేల మందికి పైగా బాధితులు ఉన్నారని తెలుస్తోంది. దాదాపు 5 గ్రామాల ప్రజలను ఖాళీ చేయించారు అధికారులు.

    ముఖ్యమంత్రి సిఎం వైఎస్ జగన్ కూడా ఇపుడు ఈ పరిస్థితిని ఆరా తీసారు. అక్కడిక్కడే ప్రజలు ప్రాణాలు కోల్పోయారు అని కూడా సమాచారం. కొంత మంది ఇళ్ళల్లోకి వెళ్లి తలుపులు వేసుకుని ఉన్నారు. పోలీసులు వచ్చి ఇళ్ళ నుంచి బయటకు రావాలని సూచించినా సరే ప్రజలు మాత్రం బయటకు రాలేదు. ప్రస్తుతం ఇప్పుడు పరిస్థితి అదుపులో లేదు అని వార్తలు వస్తున్నాయి.

    రెండు వేల మంది పరిస్థితి ఇప్పుడు ఆందోళనకరంగా ఉన్నారని అంటున్నారు. వృద్దులు చిన్న పిల్లలు అయితే ఇప్పుడు ఊపిరి ఆడక స్పృహ తప్పి పడిపోయారు. ప్రస్తుతం గ్యాస్ లీక్ ఆగిపోయినా గ్యాస్ మాత్రం పూర్తిగా విస్తరించింది. దాదాపు పది గ్రామాల వరకు ఇది ప్రమాదం అయ్యే అవకాశాలు ఉన్నాయని అంటున్నారు. వందల మంది బాధితులు ఆస్పత్రుల్లో జాయిన్ అయ్యారు. కొంత మంది అసలు స్పృహలో లేరు అని సమాచారం. తెల్లవారుజామున 3 గంటల సమయంలో ఈ ప్రమాదం చోటు చేసుకుంది అని అధికారులు చెప్తున్నారు..

  4. Covid 19 pandemic was one reminder that nature was giving humanity to mend their unsustainable ways of of life. This gas tragedy looks like another lesson to learn not to fast track economic recovery without proper safeguards.

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