Two thousand people affected in a 5 km radius in a densely populated city, hundreds in hospital and 11 dead — the gas leak in Visakhapatnam revives dark memories of Bhopal in 1984, when the Union Carbide plant there caused one of the biggest industrial disasters ever. By all accounts, recurring instances of human oversight and callousness appear to have precipitated the disaster at the LG Polymers India unit. The original owners of the plant, McDowell & Co, had sold it when the fast-developing city of Visakhapatnam drew uncomfortably close to it. It would have been wise to relocate since the hazardous feedstock of styrene was in use, but LG took it over in 1997 and continued production, admitting last year that it had exceeded the capacity permitted by its environmental clearance. It had then sought permission for expansion from the state authorities, though the central ministry of environment and forests is the competent authority. The ministry later dropped the matter in the belief that the company had lost interest.
This series of unfortunate events may have laid the ground for the accident on May 7 — it is being said that the leak occurred because the styrene had been stored for a long time, due to the lockdown. A failure to check hazardous chemicals and storage vessels is no less mystifying than the failure to secure environmental clearance before restarting operations — the role and responsibility of the company, the state administration and the Union ministry must be probed and accountability must be enforced. The managers of the company should have known that starting a production line which has lain dormant for a long period is not a trivial process. Before throwing the switch, they should have run through the entire safety drill.
A flurry of official activity has followed the gas leak. The National Green Tribunal has ordered LG Polymers India to pay interim damages of Rs 50 crore and issued notices to the company, the Central Pollution Control Board, the state and the Centre. The police have registered a case of culpable homicide and causing grievous hurt against the management, under the Indian Penal Code. The YS Jaganmohan Reddy government has set up a five-member team to probe the incident, and the Union ministry of chemicals and fertilisers has advised chemical plants to reopen with caution. Now, the probe report should be called in as soon as possible, action must be taken against the guilty and authorities issuing environmental clearances must identify any other defaulters and prevent them from restarting.
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