The Responsibility of Gas Leak at LG Chemicals Ltd lies with the Management

Rudra Sen

I was just enraged after reading the news of gas leak in the dead of night at a chemical plant that was emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown that killed at least 11 people and left hundreds in hospitals in Visakhapatnam on 07-05-2020. The tragedy rekindled memories of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster but doctors said they expect no long-term health consequences on survivors at the east coast city in Andhra Pradesh. The accident occurred some 14km inland from the coast at a plant operated by LG Polymers, a unit of South Korea’s biggest petrochemical maker, LG Chem Ltd. It is nothing but a corporate crime and wilful destruction of lives. It reminded us the monumental injustice of Bhopal over 35 years ago.  LG Polymers is a company that is responsible for the death of 11 people, causing serious ill-health to hundreds of citizens, led to evacuation of thousands and unleashed horror on the city in the midst of a distressing lockdown.

In April 2019, the South Korean government revealed that the company had fudged air pollution data to convey that it was compliant with air emission norms while in reality it had emitted the carcinogenic vinyl chloride chemical more than 15 times in excess of standards. This is a company that was functioning, over many years, in open violation of basic environmental norms. Since several decades, we have been witnessing to industries in and around the city flouting norms and not following safety guidelines. Regulatory bodies like the Pollution Control Boards are wilfully compromised and criminally pliant knowing fully well the dangers involved. Dozens of people have died because of this illicit irresponsibility but till date there has been no liability or criminal trial. Time and again, these crimes have been whitewashed, blatant lies and cover-ups resorted to, scapegoats found, damages amounts doled out and matters closed. Consequently, there has been no preclusion and Visakhapatnam continue to be suspended on an industrialized tinderbox.  It is by now evident that LG Polymers is in contempt of ‘The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989’. Styrene is classified as a ‘hazardous and toxic chemical’ and even during a lockdown, such toxins require careful management and there are well laid out protocols for the same. 
Clearly, the factory management has been careless in the handling and storing of this highly reactive chemical and has ignored the basic guidelines. It is also obvious that proper maintenance was not undertaken before operations were resumed. Serious questions remain as to why the plant was even accorded permission to resume operations after lockdown relaxations. This incident has also shown up the pathetic situation of on-site and off-site emergency plans and disaster control measures. Principles of complete accountability require that the company should pay for all expenses and compensation related to the incident, and any relief to the affected persons provided at taxpayers’ expense must be recovered from the polluter – i.e. LG Polymers. Given that this is the first case worldwide of such a massive release of styrene, and the first recorded case of human fatality as a result of inhalation exposure to styrene, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) must be conduct a long-term health study of the exposed population to determine the evolution of morbidities over time. Styrene has been categorized as a ‘Probable Human Carcinogen’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Acute exposure to styrene in humans results in respiratory effects, such as mucous membrane irritation, eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure to styrene in humans results in effects on the Central Nervous System (CNS), with symptoms such as headache, fatigue, weakness, depression, CNS dysfunction, and hearing loss, peripheral neuropathy, minor effects on some kidney enzyme functions and on the blood. Liver, blood, kidney, and stomach effects have been observed in animals following chronic oral exposure. Several epidemiologic studies suggest that there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma. Animal cancer studies have produced variable results and provide limited evidence for carcinogenicity. Styrene oxide is a reactive metabolite of styrene and shows positive carcinogenic results in oral exposure bio-assays. Styrene oxide has been detected in workers exposed to styrene. Criminal prosecution of management of LG Polymers as well as officials of regulatory bodies for the criminal negligence that led to leak of toxic gas on May 7 is must. The case registered against the LG Polymers must be pursued diligently and to the fullest extent rather than diluted as has always been the practice in the past.

The actual criminal is the capitalist system that is ruled by these corporate plunderers. By nature, it exterminates human lives for profit, poisons the planet for production, and destroys the nature for its own existence. Putting an end to this ridiculous, outmoded, and criminal system is the only way to avert many more disasters and loss of lives in future. There are in fact only two choices: Let the planet hurtle uncontrollably toward environmental disaster or people overthrow this system of capitalism.

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May 13, 2020

Rudra Sen

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