The LG Polymers India has been slapped with a penalty of Rs 50 crore by the National Green Tribunal which has sought response from the Centre in the fatal gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, saying "there appears to be a failure to comply with the said Rules and other statutory provisions".
A bench, headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, formed a 5-member Committee to investigate the tragic incident in the chemical factory, in which 11 people lost their lives and 1,000 were exposed. The committee is expected to submit a report before May 18.
The committee will inspect the site of the incident and submit a report at the earliest on the series of events, reasons for failure, people and authorities responsible and the extent of damage to life caused.
The Visakhapatnam unit of LG Polymers India did not have an environmental clearance for its petrochemical plant for a long period of its operations between 1997 and 2019, as per documents accessed by The Indian Express.
According to an affidavit submitted to the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), the company accepted 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 admitted that it had spread 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 filed for clearance with the Andhra Pradesh State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority, which in June 2019 had transferred the proposal to the Centre. The proposal was, however, removed from the environmental clearance list in November 2019 claiming that "it seems that the PP (company) is not interested to continue the project".
The NGT also issued notices to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, LG Polymers India, Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board, Vishakhapatnam District Magistrate seeking their response in the incident.
"Having regard to the prima facie material regarding the extent of damage to life, public health and environment, we direct LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd to forthwith deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crore, with the District Magistrate, Visakhapatnam, which will abide by further orders of this tribunal. The amount is being fixed having regard to the financial worth of the company and the extent of the damage caused," the bench observed.
The committee includes former AP High Court judge Justice B Seshasayana Reddy; V Rama Chandra Murthy, Former Vice-Chancellor, Andhra University, Vizag; Professor Pulipati King, Head of Chemical Engineering Department, Andhra University; CPCB Member Secretary, CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology Director, and head of NEERI in Vizag.
"The Chairman, CPCB may steer and facilitate the functioning of the committee using available technology. CPCB will bear the initial cost of the functioning of the Committee to the extent necessary. The committee will be at liberty to take the assistance of such experts, individuals and institutions as may be considered necessary," the bench said.
Styrene gas is a hazardous chemical as defined under Rule 2(e) read with Entry 583 of Schedule I to the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989 and the guidelines need on-site and off-site emergency plans to ensure prevention of damage, the NGT claimed.
"There appears to be a failure to comply with the said Rules and other statutory provisions. Leakage of hazardous gas at such a scale adversely affecting public health and environment, clearly attracts the principle of 'Strict Liability' against the enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry," the bench said.
It also clarified that such an entity is liable to reverse the damage caused under the Environment Law.
The statutory authorities responsible for authorising and regulating such activities may also be accountable for their lapses, the NGT said.
On the early morning of May 7, a toxic chemical leak from a polymer plant near Visakhapatnam impacted villages in a three-km radius, causing many deaths and affecting scores of people and animals who were seen lying unconscious on roads.
The toxic leak was noticed by company staff who were reportedly inspecting machines to restart the factory and raised an alarm.
The Andhra Pradesh government later ordered a probe into the incident.