Comments On Report of Gas Leak at LG Polymers Chemical Plant
In RR Venkatapuram Village, Visakhapatnam

Sagar Dhara

Comments On Report Of The Joint Monitoring Committee Constituted By The Hon’ble National Green Tribunal, Pb, New Delhi In The Matter Of OA No 73/2020 Titled As Re: Gas Leak At LG Polymers Chemical Plant In Rr Venkatapuram Village, Visakhapatnam In Andhra Pradesh[1]

The LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd’s (henceforth called LG Polymers), a subsidiary of LG Chem, South Korea, has a polystyrene plant located in Venkatapuram, a suburb of Visakhapatnam city, Andhra Pradesh. The plant stores and uses styrene monomer for making general purpose polystyrene, high impact polystyrene and expandable polystyrene. Engineering plastics compounds are also products of this plant.

A toxic vapour was released from the plant at about 2.30 am on 7 May 2020, and vapour emission continued for many hours. Over 1,000 persons were hospitalized on 7 May morning due to toxic vapour inhalation. Eleven persons died on 7 May and three more persons died subsequently.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) suo moto took note of this accident on 8 May 2020 and set up a committee to investigate the following aspects of the accident:

  • Sequence of events.
  • Causes of failure and persons and authorities responsible thereof.
  • Extent of damage to life, human and non-human; public health; and environment-including water, soil, air.
  • Steps to be taken for compensation of victims and restitution of the damaged property and environment, and cost involved.
  • Remedial measures to prevent recurrence.
  • Any other incidental or allied issues found relevant.

The committee submitted an interim report to the NGT on 17 May 2020 and another report on 28 May 2020 (which is henceforth referred to as the report in this note). This note comments on each section in the committee’s report, whose sections are as per the terms of reference the committee got from the NGT.

Sequence of Events

  • Sketchy sequence of events: The sequence of events is extremely sketchy and does not provide a detailed understanding of the sequence of events. Here are several examples of sketchy information in the report:
  • Page 12 of the report states that at 3.02 hrs on 7 May, “M6 tank temperature started rising,” but the report does not tell us how temperature rise is detected, particularly as the report states that there is only one temperature gauge on the tank and it is located at the bottom of the tank. The temperature rise in the tank, per the report, rose at the top of the tank. The type of temperature gauge and whether a remote reading in the control room could be done is not mentioned in the report.
  • Page 12 of the report states that “the population within a radius of 0.5 km was evacuated by the district administration.” The time of evacuation is not provided. This information is extremely important. Had the evacuation been done very soon after the vapour release started, there probably would have been no loss of life and little injury. From circumstantial evidence, evacuation seems to have been done much later.
  • Page 12 of the report states that at “3.03 hrs: Immediately the night duty officer tried to reach the fire hydrant sprinkler valve to open it, but due to high vapour cloud it was impossible to reach it.” The report does not explain why a SCBA was not used to do this when the very next sentence in the report suggests that they were available on the plant premises. Also, the report does not explain how the sprinkler system on the adjacent tank was switched on, which is what seems to be case from photographs that appeared in the press.
  • Page 12 of the report states that at “3.07 hrs: Alerted security agencies to get help from outside agencies.” The report does not explain why the siren was not sounded to alert the bystander population about the emergency.
  • Page 12 of the report states that at “5.15 hrs: Chemical inhibitors dosing arrangements started immediately.” The report does not explain why it took more than 2.5 hrs to start this procedure.
  • Page 13 of the report states that on 8 May 2020: at 22.45 hrs the tank temperature reached 154oC, on 9 May at 9.00 hrs, the temperature reached 100oC.” The report fails to state whether these temperatures were at the bottom or the top of the tank, and if it was at the top, how these readings were done.
  • Page 14 of the report states that “on the early hours of May 7, 2020, the tank with 1830 tons of storage had developed the leak of the styrene vapours from the top of the tank spread beyond the factory boundary towards the west side due to wind direction and affected the residents of 5 nearby areas.” The report does not state the source of the wind direction data or its time. This data is particularly important for modelling the vapour dispersion, which in turn has bearing on understanding the impact of the release and compensation payments.
  • Duration and spread of release not provided: The duration and extent of spread of the vapour release, even from anecdotal sources, are not provided in the report. This information is crucial for modelling the release, for doing exposure assessment and for understanding the impact on flora and fauna.

Causes of Failure and Persons and Authorities Responsible Thereof

  • Confusion between immediate and root cause of accident: The report does not distinguish between immediate and root causes of the accident. Page 12 of the report states that at “3.07 hrs: Root cause was identified as self-polymerization.” This is an immediate cause. The root cause lies in the organizational failure to arrange for the inhibitor during the lockdown period, switching off the refrigeration system at night, not having adequate temperature sensors on the tank.
  • Differing number and types of styrene leak points: There are differing statements regarding the number of points from where styrene vapour may have been released.

The interim report (page 39 of the report) states that the vapour cloud “got released from the goose neck and dip hatch nozzles.” This statement is repeated on page 6 of the report. There is no information in the report regarding the dimensions and design of these orifices.

Page 14 of the report states that “five valves are provided at the top of the affected tank roof.” The report does not state the pressure setting for these valves, how many of them popped to release styrene vapour, and their dimensions and design.

Page 16 of the report states that “M6 is an old tank in design terms and this probably contributed to the problem. The breather vent through which the boiling styrene escaped was 8 inches in diameter, enabling very significant outflow at the high temperature and pressure generated by the runaway reaction.” The design of the breather vent is not provided.

It is not clear from the report whether there were 1, 2 or 5 orifices through which styrene vapour was released. It is also not clear what kind of orifices they were—valves, breather vents, goose necks, dip hatch nozzles and from their names, their pressure settings seem to vary.

Information of the orifices through which the vapours were released is extremely important for modelling the vapour dispersion, which in turn has bearing on understanding the impact of the release on human health, flora and fauna, and compensation payment computations.

  • Department of Industries, Factories and Boilers not held responsible for regulatory lapses: The report states that “the role of issuing necessary safety certificate to the industry, the periodic inspections is the primary responsibility of the Department of industries, Factories and Boilers.” Yet the report does not hold the department responsible for allowing an unsafe tank to remain in operation.

 The report makes no mention of whether the department or any other regulatory agency provided guidance to LG Polymers on safely opening a plant that has been shut for a period.

  • Liability of LG Chem, South Korea not mentioned: LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. is a subsidiary of LG Chem, South Korea, one of the top ten largest chemical companies in the world. Not making a mention of the liability of LG Chem by the report is a gross omission, particularly in light of events that unfolded after the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.

Extent of Damage to Life, Human and Non-Human; Public Health and Environment-Including Water, Soil, Air

  • Impact on public health, flora fauna not covered by the report: Except making a terse statement on page 17 that “12 people and 22 animals have died,” the report has not fulfilled the terms of reference of the NGT with respect to assessing the impact of the styrene release on public health, vegetation and fauna. The report does not identify the animal species—cattle, goats, chicken, that died.

Regarding public health, the report recommends health monitoring of the suspected population for at least five years (page 19). Why health monitoring should be done for this period has not been explained in the report.

  • Incomplete data reporting: The report format is confusing as a maximum and minimum value for styrene concentration is provided for each air monitoring station. This implies that more than one sample was collected at each air quality monitoring station. The time of sample collection along with wind direction and speed at the time of sample collection should have been provided in the report so that modelling the release, exposure assessment and impact of the release on flora and fauna can be done. A map for the air monitoring stations should have been provided. These are standard practices while reporting air quality data.
  • Inadequate explanation for reported data: The report offers no explanation for high values for maximum styrene concentrations were measured on 8 May 2020 at Venkatapuram (374 ppm) and the Industry Main Gate (242 ppm), but low values were measured at the Storage Tank (17.5 ppm).
  • Conflict of interest: There is a conflict of interest in recommending NEERI for doing further studies. This is discussed further below.

Steps to Be Taken for Compensation of Victims and Restitution of Damaged Property and Environment, And Cost Involved

  • Whether absolute or strict liability applicable not mentioned: The report fails to mention whether liability in this accident will be strict liability or absolute liability. In the 1986 M C Mehta and Another vs. Union of India and Others order, the Supreme Court held that if an enterprise caused an accident, it would hold absolutely liable for compensation, and ‘no negligence’ on the part of the enterprise will not be an excuse. In keeping with the Supreme Court ruling, the report should have stated that absolute liability should fully apply in the LG Polymers accident to LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. and LG Chemical, South Korea, including prosecution of executives, compensation, medical expenses, health surveillance, and remediation, etc.
  • Conflict of interest: There is a conflict of interest in recommending NEERI for doing further studies. This is discussed further below. Moreover, NEERI must demonstrate experience of having done work in environmental valuation, e.g., doing contingent analysis, etc, before they can be considered for such a task.

Remedial Measures to Prevent Recurrence

  • Unclear statement: Point #15 on page 20 of the report states, “Automatic styrene sensor should be installed in the different direction and residential with minimum detection limit of 1 ppm” is unclear.
  • Details of violations by LG Polymers and action taken by regulators not provided: Point #19 on page 20 of the report states, “ The administrative failures such as not obtaining Environmental Clearance from MoEF&CC, not implementing the recommendations of the APPCB, and factories of inspectors in time (based in inspection reports), failure of replacing the old storage tanks and having no safety measures for temperature recordings, no safety audit reports are to be further investigated” suggests that APPCB and the Factories Inspectorate have cited LG Polymers for past violations.The report does not provide details of the violations committed by LG Polymers or the action taken by APPCB and the Factories Inspectorate to make the company comply with the citations, and compliance reports, if any.

Any Other Incidental or Allied Issues Found Relevant

  • Conflict of interest in recommendation made in #3, page 21: There is a conflict of interest in recommending NEERI for doing further studies. This is discussed further below.
  • Reasons for health monitoring of pregnant women not specified: In #7 on page 21, the report states that government should monitor the health status of pregnant women without specifying a reason.
  • Responsibility for land use changes bringing residential housing close to LG Polymers not fixed: In #13 on page 21, the report states, “Why should building plan approvals be given 200 metres radius adjacent to the Factory. The Urban Development is also responsible for the incident.” While identifying that land use changes that allowed residential housing to be established close to the LG Polymers plant was a cause for causing risk to people, the report does not fix responsibility on any entity for making undesirable land use change that caused increased risk to people.
  • No recommendation regarding regulators not equipped to deal with chemical disasters: In #16 on page 21 the report states that “people opined that neither the Inspectorate of Factory nor Fire officials are aware how to deal with hemical disasters.” The report does makes no recommendations regarding how to correct this problem.

Scope for Further Study

  • Conflict of interest: On page 22, the report recommends NEERI to conduct further studies regarding the LG Polymers accident. NEERI is a member of the committee setup by the NGT to investigate the LG Polymers accident. This committee cannot recommend NEERI for doing further studies as there is a conflict of interest between NEERI’s membership in this committee and doing further studies regarding the accident, i.e., it is like NEERI using its position as a member of a committee to recommend itself for gain.
  • NEEERI’s shifting positions in environmental assessments: Two examples of NEERI’s shifting positions and contradictory stands in doing environmental assessments are exemplified below.
    1. On Menaka Gandhi’s intervention in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (SC) through IA 21 in WP (Civil) No 664/1993 Hon’ble SC, in an order dt 7 Nov 1996, directed NEERI to examine the “viability of the proposed 1,000 MW coal-based power plant of the Mangalore Power Company (with Cogentrix as the lead partner) at Nandikur, Karnataka, based on the principle of sustainable development.”

NEERI’s report[2] to the SC was unfavourable towards the proposed project at Nandikur as:

  • The site was in an ecologically sensitive area.
  • A carrying capacity study should have been done for this area that is endowed with “rich aquatic and terrestrial based resource potential” as proposed by the Karnataka Government and any decision regarding the proposed Nandikur power plant and other industrial projects should be taken in light of the results of such a study.
  • Local people were not taken into confidence regarding the Nandikur project and the likely impacts it would have.

The Udupi Power Corporation Ltd (UPCL), a subsidiary of Adani Power Limited, established a 1,200 MW coal based thermal power plant in 2009 at Padubidri, Yelluru and Santhuru villages in Udupi District, a site that is ~5 km away from the Nandikur site for which NEERI did the environmental appraisal in 1996. UPCL proposed a capacity expansion of 1,600 MW and commissioned NEERI to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the site.

NEERI’s 1996 environmental assessment of the area has not changed, i.e., the area remains ecologically sensitive, and its recommendations remain unfulfilled, i.e., carrying capacity study has not been done, nor were the people taken into confidence regarding the project’s impacts. Yet, NEERI’s EIA report[3] for UPCL was in favour of UPCL’s capacity expansion on grounds that the environmental impact after capacity expansion was acceptable.

In its EIA report for UPCL’s expansion, NEERI did not refer to its 1996 assessment that this area is ecologically sensitive, nor did it do an impact assessment of the existing UPCL plant, despite several farmers complaining of crop yield losses, respiratory illness, etc. There were more than a dozen technical errors in NEERI’s EIA report, including erroneous air quality modelling.

In its UPCL EIA report, NEERI states that the plant site is 30 km from an ecologically sensitive area, which is contrary to its 1996 assessment which held that the plant site was ecologically sensitive. There is compelling evidence that the study area continues to remain ecologically sensitive, yet NEERI fails to recognize this in its EIA report for UPCL’s power plant capacity expansion proposal, or present data to disprove its earlier assessment that the area is ecologically sensitive. NEERI made a complete turnaround in its position regarding the area, with no explanation whatsoever.

Jan Jagrithi Samithi filed a petition[4] against the Union of India and others, including UPCL in the NGT opposing UPCL’s capacity expansion proposal. In this matter, the Hon’ble NGT in an order passed on 14 Mar 2019 held that:

  • “The conduct of the MoEF&CC in the entire episode does not appear to be above board. The Tribunal expresses grave anguish and concern which in our view ought to be corrected.”
  • “(UPCL has been) in violation right from the inception. Genuinely serious issues raised by the villagers and the Applicants had not been given the due attention,”
  • “directions would be called for to remove the plant and order for restoration of the area and the environment. However, considering the facts and circumstances, the lapse of time and the fait accompli situation that has arisen, we are of the view that the interest of public will not be served in passing such order.”
  • “Udupi Power Corporation Ltd., liable to pay Environmental Compensation which shall be assessed by a Committee of Experts.”
  • “Awaiting such report, we direct M/s. Udupi Power Corporation Ltd. to pay an interim Environmental Compensation ₹5 crores with the CPCB. The interim compensation would be subject to assessment of final damages by the Committee of Experts”
  • “Environmental Clearance dated 01.08.2017 for expansion by addition of 2x800 MW (Phase-II), is bad inter alia for having failed to comply with the mandatory requirement of holding public hearing, we direct that there shall be no further activities in respect of the proposal for expansion. Before embarking upon it, we deem it appropriate to direct the MoEF&CC to ensure that the project proponent carries out an additional EIA study.”

By stating that UPCL’s power plant capacity expansion will not impact the environment significantly  after holding that the site in question is ecologically sensitive, NEERI has profusely tarnished its professional standing and indicated that it is willing to bend itself in exchange for consulting fees from industry.

  • 2. In a 2008 Delhi High Court order[5] in a matter regarding the Commonwealth Games facilities being constructed on the Yamuna River bed, where NEERI took different positions at different times, the High Court’s observations regarding NEERI’s conduct were:
  • “From an institution of this repute, it was not expected that report of this kind would be submitted”
  • “The Reports of the NEERI do not paint this body in bright colours. Rather, they show how it has changed colours and has not bothered to contradict itself”.
  • “As would be borne out from the above neither NEERI nor Ministry of Environment and Forest nor DDA can be said to have acted fairly and objectively. Their hands appear to be tainted”.
  • “The issues involved are of great significance and importance and they require dispassionate, honest and thorough examination by experts of eminence and impeccable integrity”.
  • “It is a sad story of men in haste fiddling with major issues and resultantly playing havoc.”

From the above examples it appears that it has become a habit for NEERI to change its positions.

  • NEERI does consulting for industry, hence is not a neutral entity: NEERI does a lot of consulting work for industry, but this author does not know of a single instance where NEERI has done consulting work for bystander populations or for lay people. NEERI is not viewed to be a neutral party but is viewed to be industry friendly. Hence its neutrality and objectivity in a study that investigates the LG Polymers accident is in doubt.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  • The NGT Committee report on the LG Polymers accident lacks professionalism. It appears to be a report that has been hastily put together with minimal field or desk work. While not recommending that this report be discarded, to arrive at a more complete and proper understanding of the accident and learn lessons from it in order to minimize the probability of similar accidents happening in future, this report needs to be supplemented considerably with further data collection and analysis.
  • The bystander population residing around LG Polymers and the workers of the plant are also stakeholders in the accident investigation as their lives were at risk. Yet, it is injustice that they were not given any role in the accident investigation. It is not domain expertise alone that is important for doing a good investigation, but also the willingness and motivation to do it, which the bystander population and plant workers have.

In the interest of increasing plant safety in India, the bystander population and the workers of LG Polymers must be given legal authority and sanction to conduct an accident-incident investigation of the LG Polymers accident on the same terms of reference that the NGT Committee was given. These stakeholders may be allowed to have consultants of their choice, should they so decide. Costs for this investigation may be borne by the Government of India and the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

  • There is a conflict of interest in permitting NEERI to do any further work on the LG Polymers accident, and therefore they should be debarred from doing any follow-up studies on the LG Polymers accident. The NGT Committee on the LG Polymers accident investigation has lowered its integrity by recommending NEERI for doing follow-up studies on the LG Polymers accident.

1. Report of the Joint Monitoring Committee constituted by the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal, PB, New Delhi, in the matter of OA No 73/2020 titled as re: Gas Leak at LG Polymers Chemical Plant in RR Venkatapuram, Visakhapatnam, in Andhra Pradesh, 28.5.2020, Delhi.
2. National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, 6 Dec 1996. Examination of the environmental viability and sustainability of certain projects submitted to the Supreme Court of India.
3. CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, December 2016. Environmental Impact Assessment Study for Expansion of 2x600 MW TPP of Udupi Power Corporation Ltd. to 2800 MW by Addition of 2x800 MW Units at Yelluru, Dist. Udupi, Karnataka For Udupi Power Corporation Ltd. (A Subsidiary of Adani Power Limited), Padubidri, Udupi, Karnataka.
4. Original Application No.578/2018 (Earlier O.A. No. 26/2013(SZ) (THC) WITH Original Application No. 579/2018 (Earlier O.A. No. 27/2013 (SZ) (THC) WITH Original Application No. 580/2018 (Earlier O.A. No. 28/2013 (SZ) (THC) WITH Appeal No. 176/2018 (Earlier Appeal No. 51/2012 (SZ) (THC) WITH Appeal No. 86/2017 (SZ).
5. High Court of Delhi at New Delhi, WP(C) No.7506 of 2007 And WP(C) No.6729 of 2007, Reserved on: February 02, 2008, Pronounced on: November 03, 2008, 1. WP(C) No.7506 of 2007: Rajendra Singh and ors vs Govt of NCT Delhi and ors and WP(C) No.6729 of 2008: Vinod Kumar Jain vs Union of India and ors., Coram: Hon’ble Justice A.K.Sikri and Hon’ble Justice Rekha Sharma.

Sagar Dhara held Positions like, Environmental engineering consultant, United Nations Environment Programme, Bangkok; Director (Safety) Envirotech Consultants, Delhi; Faculty, BITS Pillani. Committee memberships: Monitoring Committee, Transboundary Air Pollution and its likely Impacts, UNEP, 2001-2013; Supreme Court Expert Committee on Pollution and Encroachment of the Hussain Sagar Lake, 2005; Supreme Court Expert Committee on Hussain Sagar Lake, 2010; Government of India Task Force on Improving EIA Methodology and Environmental Clearance Procedures, 2007; Government of India Task Force on Robotics, 1988; AP Pollution Control Board CFO Committee, 1998-2001; AP State Environmental Committee, 2000-01.

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Jun 30, 2020

Sagar Dhara

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