The Visakhapatnam unit of LG Polymers India, where a gas leak killed at least 10 people and left several injured, did not have an environmental clearance for its petrochemical plant for a substantial period of its operations between 1997 and 2019, according to documents accessed by The Indian Express.
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In an affidavit submitted to the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), the company admitted that as of May 10, 2019, the unit did not have a “valid environmental clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority for continuing operations”.
It also acknowledged that it had expanded the production at the plant “beyond the limit of environmental clearance or changed the product mix without obtaining prior environmental clearance as mandated under the EIA notification, 2006”.
The company had then also undertaken that it would not “repeat any such violation in future”.
Furthermore, the company’s plans to expand the unit last year was classified as a ‘Category A’ project for which a “prior environment clearance” from the Union Ministry of Environment was required. However, the company filed for clearance with the Andhra Pradesh State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority, which in June 2019, transferred the proposal to the Centre.
According to information sourced from the Union Environment Ministry, the company’s proposal was delisted from the environmental clearance portal in November 2019 saying that “it seems that the PP (company) is not interested to continue the project”.
LG Polymers, which had in 1997 bought the plant from McDowell & Company, applied for an environmental clearance for the plant from Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board in May 2019 when it wanted to expand its capacity from 415 tonnes per day (TPD) to 655 TPD. The unit manufactures polystyrene and expandable polystyrene using imported styrene. It also reprocessed primary plastics into engineering plastics.
Questions sent to the LG Chemical’s Visakhapatnam unit, its parent company in South Korea, as well as Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board elicited no response.
In a statement issued Thursday in Seoul, LG Chem, the parent company of LG Polymers, said the gas leak was under control and that the company was cooperating with authorities. “…the leaked gas can cause nausea and dizziness, so we are investing every effort to ensure proper treatment is provided swiftly,” it said. “We are investigating the extent of damage and the exact cause of the leak and deaths.”
Earlier, McDowell & Company, which used to operate the unit between 1982 and 1997, had, prior to selling the unit to LG Polymers, decided to decommission the production of styrene and alcohol-based distillery, considering the plant’s “proximity to populated areas”.
The plant, located on the outskirts of the city, found itself between populace over time as the city expanded. After taking over the company from McDowell & Company, LG Polymers decided to continue making polystyrene and expandable polystyrene, albeit from imported styrene. The company had received a consent for establishment and consent for operation of the unit in November 2001 and May 2002, respectively.
According to the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, styrene is classified as a “hazardous and toxic chemical”. Styrene monomer, which was being used at the manufacturing plant to produce expandable plastics, needs to be stored at a temperature below 17 degrees Centigrade.
While the investigations are underway regarding the accident, a possible reason could be that during the shutdown of the plant due to Covid-19, styrene gas was not being stored at the appropriate temperature, causing pressure to build up in the storage chamber and that led to the valve to break, resulting in the gas leakage.
In 2018, the company had planned an expansion of its unit. The proposed expansion by 240 TPD was to cost Rs 168 crore to create new production blocks, utilities and enhance effluent treatment system. The company had then also said that it proposed to employ workers who lived in nearby villages for construction, and thus there was no need of providing them with housing units on-site.
In its May 2019 application, the company had admitted that hazardous chemicals would be used for the manufacture of polystyrene and expandable polystyrene, it would not have “any significant impact” on the heath of vulnerable people such as the patients, children and the elderly people.
“All the hazardous materials will be stored in MS (mild steel) drums, in a covered shed and no contamination of soil is expected. Same philosophy will be followed for the after expansion,” the application stated. It had also said that all the inbuilt safety precautions would be taken during the expansion, and that there “will not be any damage to environment or human health”.
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