Visakhapatnam Gas Leak
TOPIC: General Studies 3
- Disasters and its management
In News: A major leak from a polymer plant LG Polymers near Visakhapatnam impacted villages in a five-km radius, leaving at least 9 people dead and thousands of citizens suffering from breathlessness and other problems in an early morning mishap that raised fears of a serious industrial disaster.
- It has killed eight people and reportedly led to the hospitalisation of more than a thousand.
- The leak occurred early morning May 7, 2020 at a private plastic making plant owned by LG Polymers Pvt Ltd, a part of South Korean conglomerate LG Corp.
- The facility is spread over 600 acres of land, that includes nearby residential areas. It is spread over 231 acres, according to terms of reference submitted by the company in 2018. The impact zone has been in the range of 2-3 kilometres.
- The leak has been plugged and NDRF teams moved into the five affected villages and have started opening the houses to find out if anyone was stranded inside. Covid-19 preparedness helped a lot as dozens of ambulances with oxygen cylinders and ventilators were readily available. The spread of the gas depends on wind speeds. So far it is estimated that areas within a five kilometre radius have been affected.
- The gas was confirmed to be styrene or vinyl benzene.
Steps taken by National Green Tribunal
- National Green Tribunal (NGT) reportedly took suo motu cognisance of the gas leak incident and on May 8 directed LG Polymers India to deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crore for the damage caused.
- The tribunal also constituted a six-member committee headed by Justice B. Seshasayana Reddy, a former judge of the Andhra Pradesh high court, tasked to find the exact sequence of events leading up to the leak, including the cause of failure; persons and authorities responsible; extent of damage to life, public health, and environment; steps taken to compensate victims and restitute damaged property; etc.
How did this happen?
Styrene monomer (a single unit of styrene) was used at the manufacturing plant to produce expandable plastics. The storage requirement of styrene monomer strictly mentions that it has to be below 17 degrees Celsius.
There are clear rules on hazardous chemical storage under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. A possible reason for the May 7 leak accident is that the plant may not have stored styrene gas at the right temperature, causing pressure to build up within the chamber, followed by a valve failure and then leak. Another issue was a defunct volatile organic compound (VOC) detection system at the plant. There is no monitoring mechanism installed to specifically detect styrene.
What is the immediate treatment to be given to the affected?
The most important immediate treatment is to give oxygen to affected people. The people in the zone also need to be evacuated as long-term exposure can be detrimental to their health. Also, as styrene reacts to form styrene dioxide, the air could remain contaminated for some time. However, the winds blowing from the sea could also help disperse the gas.
The factory had submitted a Rs 168 crore proposal in 2018 to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change to expand its production capacity by another 250 tonnes per day (tpd) from the current 415 tpd. This permission, as we understand it, has been recently granted.
Guidelines on storage of hazardous chemicals in plants
After the Bhopal disaster, many legislations were enacted starting from the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. According to The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, styrene is classified as a hazardous and toxic chemical.
|Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
|Omnibus act, which gives sweeping powers to Central government to take all measures to protect the environment|
|Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986
|Set discharge and product standards – source standards for restricting pollution; product standards for manufactured goods and ambient air and water standards – for regulating quality of life and environmental protection|
|Hazardous Waste (Management Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 1989
|Industry required to identify major accident hazards, take preventive measures and submit a report to the designated authorities|
|Manufacture, Storage And Import Of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989
|Importer must furnish complete product safety information to the competent authority and must transport imported chemicals in accordance with the amended rules.|
|Chemical Accidents (Emergency, Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996||Centre is required to constitute a central crisis group for management of chemical accidents; set up quick response mechanism termed as the crisis alert system. Each state is required to set up a crisis group and report on its work.|
|Factories Amendment Act, 1987
|Provision to regulate siting of hazardous units; safety of workers and nearby residents and mandates for on-site emergency plans and disaster control measures|
|Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991
|Imposes a no-fault liability on the owner of hazardous substance and requires the owner to compensate victims of accident irrespective of any neglect or default. For this, the owner is required to take out an insurance policy covering potential liability from any accident.|
How styrene affects humans, animals?
Styrene is the 20th most-used chemical in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The chemical can be found in air, water and soil once released into the environment. It is used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins. These materials are subsequently used in food packaging, rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes and automobile parts. It is also known as PVC gas (polyvinyl chloride), as it is used in the production of PVC.
- It is broken down in air in 1-2 days, while it evaporates from soil and shallow water surfaces.
- It is broken down by micro-organisms if it reaches soil.
- It can enter the human body through breathing, eating food and contact through skin. Once it enters the human body, styrene takes a few days to break down into other chemicals and pass through urine.
- It is the most harmful in its most basic form as a monomer (a single unit of styrene), according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States.
- When humans are exposed to styrene, it causes eye irritation and gastro-intestinal effects. It also impacts the outer layer of tissues in the skin causing erosion and bleeding in the short term. Long-term effects include central nervous system dysfunction, depression, hearing loss and peripheral neuropathy (a numb feeling in the hands and feet).
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that styrene is a possible carcinogen and can cause cancer under long exposure.
The Way Forward
- The gas leak tragedy is a reminder that safety is paramount when exiting the lockdown. Immediate directive must go to all units to ensure safety while resuming activity and also in case the lockdown continues, these safety precautions must not be negated.
- The Andhra Pradesh government must focus immediately on the medical needs of those who have been grievously affected by the gas leak. Solatium payments and compensation for the victims and families are important, but so is access to the highest quality of health care for the victims.
- India must probe before blaming workers or so called unskilled workers.
As India aims for a wider manufacturing base, it needs to strengthen its approach to public and occupational safety. Transparent oversight is not a hurdle to industrial growth. It advances sustainable development by eliminating terrible mistakes.
Connecting the Dots:
- How does styrene, the chemical being blamed for Vizag gas leak deaths, affects human body?
- Highlight immediate measures to be taken during industrial disasters.
- Vizag gas leak very similar to Bhopal tragedy. Is it a reminder of the folly of seeing environmental due diligence as an impediment to economic activity? Discuss.
- Essay: No good lessons have been learnt from the 1984 Union Carbide disaster