Company that owns factory admitted it did not have valid environmental clearance
The chemical factory that leaked gas into a coastal Indian city on Thursday morning, killing at least 12 people and putting hundreds in hospital, was operating illegally until at least the middle of 2019, documents show.
In an affidavit [pdf] filed by LG Polymers in May 2019, as part of its application to expand the plastic plant’s operations, the South Korean multinational admitted it was operating its polystyrene plant without the mandatory environmental clearance from the Indian government.
“As on this date our industry does not have a valid environmental clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority, for continuing operations,” the company said.
In the early hours of Thursday, toxic styrene fumes began leaking from the LG plant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh state, as preparations were underway to restart production after a nationwide lockdown. The gas enveloped residents as they slept, causing people to collapse in the streets as they fled their homes. About 1,000 people were exposed to the gas, which causes neurological symptoms including headaches and nausea, as well as burning eyes. Twelve residents, including two children, died.
The documents show that in December 2017, LG Polymers applied to the central government for the mandatory environmental clearance, in regard to a proposed expansion. The factory had been operating since 2001, but it is unclear whether the company had ever applied for the legally required permit before this.
In its affidavit filed May 2019, LG Polymers informed central and state government it had not fulfilled its legally binding environmental requirement. Prior to this, the factory had operated based only on consent given by the Andhra Pradesh pollution control board. The same pollution control board had also given approval on six separate occasions for LG Polymers to expand its operations.
The company then inexplicably withdrew its application in November 2019, even though the clearance had not yet been granted. The Guardian could not confirm whether it had since received the necessary permits.
Environment clearance involves carrying out scoping and pollution studies, consulting with affected communities and mapping out any potential contaminating impact of the plant, under the scrutiny of an expert panel.
“Running without an environment clearance is a crime: consent from the pollution board is not a ground on which they can operate,” a Delhi-based environmental lawyer, Ritwick Dutta, said. “They should have ceased production at least then. Culpability is with the pollution control board, state and central environment authorities. They knew, they should have taken action proactively.”
LG Polymers did not respond to a request for comment.
EAS Sarma, a former government finance and power secretary, who lives in Visakhapatnam, has filed a legal petition against the ministry of environment, the Andhra Pradesh state government and LG Polymers, calling for them to be held accountable for failing to comply with environmental law and to pay damages for contaminating the area. The petition was heard on Friday by the National Green Tribunal, India’s top environmental court. Its ruling is awaited.
The erosion of environmental safeguards and legislation has been evident since the prime minister, Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014. Green laws have been eased in favour of reduced industrial scrutiny and factories are now allowed to apply for retrospective environmental clearance. In March, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change amended the law so that smaller industrial, mining and energy projects will no longer be required to undergo environmental impact assessment.
Environmentalists said this lack of enforcement and accountability on environmental laws meant it was not uncommon for major industries, such as construction or coal mines, to operate without clearance. Federal and local pollution and industrial safety watchdogs are often thinly staffed and poorly trained and equipped.
The cost of poor environmental regulation is high. On Thursday, as well as the LG Polymers leak, there were industrial accidents at two other factories, one in Chhattisgarh and another in Tamil Nadu, that hospitalised several workers. In April, six people, including two toddlers, died when the waste pond burst at a factory in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli region, which was allegedly operating in violation of environmental laws, releasing a flood of ash slurry.
VS Krishna of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Forum said there was already an attempt by state government to remove LG Polymers from any potential criminal liability for the gas leak.
“No one is talking about criminal liability, there’s not been any deterrent,” he said. “There’s been a spate of accidents in this city and it all ends at compensation. The attempt to whitewash the South Koreans and the government has already started.”