Vizag Gas Leak: A death Show, where it was hard to move out Alive
Written by: Utkarsh Arora, Student, The ICFAI University, Dehradun
Miserable it was, with shouts of citizens baffling and perplexed, falling on roads, vehicles honking desperately and the prime mover of this dejected, disconsolate and mournful situation was a pungent smelling gas, that made its way out from a chemical plant named LG Polymers. But Vizag was lucky enough, as the favourable wind direction and early evacuation of people allowed many of them to save their lives and stopped this accident from turning into a catastrophe.
A Brief Background of the “plant”
The antiquity of this chemical plant can be explicitly traced back to the year, 1961. Back then it was originally established as “Hindustani polymers”.
In 1978, a merger took place. Wherein a subsidiary body of united breuries group namely “MC. Dowell holding” and “Hindustani Polymers” came together to work as one unit.
In 1997, it was ultimately acquired by a South Korean company known as LG chem., which further renamed the aforesaid company to LG Polymers. (1)
What Actually Happened?
It was an industrial Accident that took place at a chemical plant owned by LG Polymers.
The plant situated in the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam, was reopened on May 7th, 2020, following a nation-wide lockdown which was in force as a measure to curb COVID-19. (THE PLANT WAS ACTUALLY shut DOWN COMPLETELY FOR 45 DAYS IN LIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC)
The plant had a tank full of styrene storing 2000 metric tons of the aforesaid monomer, which was left all alone and unattended for more than 45 days.
The monomer, i.e. the styrene monomer must be stockpiled with extreme precautions, which demands a temperature of 20-22 degree centigrade, as higher temperatures lead to a laden, hulking and dense vaporization.
According to the reports, it is explicitly and strongly surmised that a glitch in the factory’s cooling system allowed the temperatures to rise and exceed the safe levels, causing the styrene to vaporize.
Eventually around 3:00 AM in the morning, when the maintenance activity was under progress, the gas escaped from the tanks by vaporizing and resulted in a cloud spread of over 3 KM in radius, making some irreplaceable and irreversible damages in the nearby areas and villages.
The Gas Leak was responsible for - death of 11 and hospitalization of more than 1000 and made more than 2000 people sick. Along with this, the damage which it caused the environment was in sooth irreplaceable. (2)
How “LG Polymers” was legally squared by the authorities and Judicial Bodies of “INDIA”?
Everything started with an industrial accident, which took place on 7th May, 2020. Wherein, styrene –a hazardous gas – leaked from a chemical factory situated in the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam in a village named R.R. Venkatapuram, in pendurthy mandal, which led to the death of 11, hospitalization of 1000’s and made more than 2000 people sick.
On that very day viz. 7th May, 2020 High court Andhra pradesh immediately grasped LG Polymers by the scruff of its neck by taking Suo Motu Cognizance, High court Andhra Pradesh directed the state and all other authorities in charge, to take all the necessary steps in order to attenuate and mollify the loss that was caused by the accident.
On 8th May 2020, National Green Tribunal (NGT) was the next to slap LG Polymers with an interim depository amount of Rs 50 Crore holding the company Absolutely liable under Absolute Liability Rule, wherein the aforesaid company was directed to deposit the amount with DM, Vishakhapatnam.
High court Andhra Pradesh instructed the state and authorities in charge to form an appropriate committee with suitable officers (i.e. not below the rank of principal secretaries) in order to examine and investigate the incident and the case thoroughly.
This formation of committee was followed by another such formation, wherein NGT took an initiative to set up a five-member committee, headed by Andhra Pradesh High court Justice B. Seshasayana Reddy in order to inquest the whole incident and submit the report by 18th May.
All in All seven such committees were formed to look into the case, which were directed to be formed by “Andhra Pradesh High Court”, “National green Tribunal” and “National Human Rights commission”, if we name some.
Furthermore, the Andhra Pradesh High court ordered the total seizure of the plant and prohibited the entry of all except the committees constituted by the state, Moreover the court asked the directors of the company to deposit their passports and curtailed them completely form moving out of the country.
Company which was initially thrown in the frying pan was now in the fire, as NGT on June 1st ordered for the appropriation of rupees 50 crore which was deposited by LG Polymers to mitigate the loss suffered and compensate the individuals affected by styrene monomer. (3)
On 14th May, 2020 LG Polymers approached the supreme court of India, in order to challenge the orders passed by NGT and High court Andhra Pradesh. (The bench consisted of Justices UU Lalit, MM Shantanaagoudar and Vineet Saran)
Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, the counsel for LG Polymers, on the very first hearing challenged the formation of a 6-member committee by NGT.
As, According to Mr. Rohatgi there, there was no such exigency or any requirement for NGT to form this additional committee by taking Suo Motu Cognizance.
The Second issue raised, before the top court by Mr. Rohatgi was “whether NGT could take Suo Motu Cognizance of any matter squarely?
Then, the counsel representing the LG Polymers, Mr. Rohatgi called upon the decision of High court Andhra Pradesh to seal the plant as unconstitutional. Wherein, he added that the plant is highly specialized and sophisticated and sealing it without an expert opinion can make such plant all the more dangerous as leaving it unattended may lead to an accident which would be twice dangerous and hazardous as it was.
Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, also challenged before the top court the strict restraining orders of the high court, in which the directors of the company were completely barred from moving out of the country. Mr. Rohatgi further made the company’s intention before the apex court very clear, he told that the company has no intention to impeded the proceedings as it has discharged its obligation by depositing the initial interim amount of Rs 50 crore as ordered by NGT and asked the apex court “ARE WE CRIMINALS, SO WHY ARE WE ASKED TO DEPOSIT THE PASSPORTS”.
In the light of the aforesaid contentions the top court in the proceedings held via video-conferencing, took note of the company’s plea and allowed access to 30 of the company’s employees or representatives to the plant for maintenance purpose as there were toxic polymers inside. Along with this the bench gave liberty to the petitioner company to approach the NGT and impress the tribunal for unnecessary constitution of a committee and till then the apex court left the matter pending.
In the next hearing, on May 19th Mr. Rohatgi made the bench aware as to how the orders of the apex court were directly contravened, as the district magistrate, Vishakhapatnam barred the entry of two of the personnel out of the 30, on the account of being lawyers.
The counsel for LG polymers further spot lighted the issue of ignorance which was taking place on the part of high court Andhra pradesh, wherein Mr. Rohatgi made the bench aware of the high court and it’s seizure with pleas but still how court has made all of them to stand halfway on the accounts of vacations.
The bench took note of the plea and directed the High court Andhra pradesh to take up the matters expeditiously and liquidate or dispose of the pending matters as soon as possible, moreover Supreme Court granted, the petitioner company continual access to the plant.
NGT (National Green tribunal) on “June 1” directed for the appropriation of money deposited by the petitioner company for revamping the environment and mitigating the loss suffered by the victims of the Vizag gas leak, moreover the tribunal also directed for the formation of a “makeover Plan” in order to valuate the amount of compensation to be paid to the victims and bring an action against the authorities that allowed the company to function without statutory clearances.
Mukul Rohatgi, further contented before the apex court that NGT’s enquiry committee submitted its report and further published it on 28th May only, and NGT passed the appropriation orders on June 1st, which completely squared the company and gave it hardly any time to respond, and for this reason Mr. Rohatgi, sought for the suspension of the disbursal of Rs.50 crore.
Howbeit, the apex court on 15th June viz. Monday bided on the orders of NGT and asked the High court Andhra pradesh to address as well as decide the various disputes in connection with this case by the end of next week.
“And as of now, further hearing of the case has been scheduled two weeks later” (4)
1. Devika. Scc Online. Scc Online. [Online] June 03, 2020. [Cited: july 13, 2020.] https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2020/06/03/vizag-gas-leak-rs-50-cr-deposited-by-lg-polymers-to-be-appropriated-towards-its-part liability-in-restoration-of-environment-and-competition-to victims-erring-officers-of-andhra-authoritites-need/.
2. PTI. TIMMESNOWNEWS.COM. TIMESNOWNEWS.COM. [Online] May 26, 2020. [Cited: July 15, 2020.] htpps://www.timesnownews.com/india/articles/gas-leak-supreme-court-grants-30-employees-of-lg-polymers-access-to-its-sealed-plantt-at-vizag/579280.
3. Roy, Debyana. Bar and Bench. Bar and Bench. [Online] May 19, 2020. [Cited: July 16, 2020.] htpps://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/vizag-gas-leak-supreme-court-asks-lg-polymers-to-approach-ngt-over-appropriate-committee-to-conduct-probe..
4. Corespondent, Legal. The Hindu. The Hindu. [Online] June 15, 2020. [Cited: July 16, 2020.] https:/www.thehindu.com/news/national/sc-stays-green-tribunal-orders-in-vizag-gas-leak-case/article31836163.ece.
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