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.
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”.
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?
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.
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.
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.