- The Vizag Gas Leak was an industrial accident that occurred at a chemical plant in R. R. Venkatapuram village near Gopalapatnam on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh on the early morning of 7 May 2020.
- The source of the leak was a styrene plant owned by South Korean electronics giant LG.
- The leaked gas spread over a radius of about 3 kilometres affecting the nearby areas and villages. The incident had a death toll was of 12 and more than 1,000 people were affected.
What is Styrene?
- It is a flammable liquid that is used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, fibre glass, rubber, and latex.
- Styrene is also found in vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, and in natural foods like fruits and vegetables.
- According to The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, styrene is classified as a toxic and hazardous chemical.
What happens when exposed to styrene?
- A short-term exposure to the substance can result in respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues.
- And long-term exposure could drastically affect the central nervous system and lead to other related problems like peripheral neuropathy.
- It is, likely, a carcinogenic substance that can react with oxygen in the air to mutate into styrene dioxide, a substance that is more lethal.
- However, there is no sufficient evidence despite several epidemiology studies indicating there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukaemia and lymphoma.
What are the symptoms?
- Symptoms include headache, hearing loss, fatigue, weakness, difficulty in concentrating etc.
- Animal studies have reported effects on the nervous system, liver, kidney, and eye and nasal irritation from inhalation exposure to styrene.
How bad is the situation in Visakhapatnam?
- It is yet unclear whether the deaths are due to direct exposure to styrene gas or one of its byproducts.
- However, hundreds of people including many children were admitted to hospitals.
- The cases are high as the gas leak was only detected at 3 am in the morning, meaning several crucial hours have been lost till safety precautions were taken.
- More fatally, the gas was leaked while people were fast asleep.
What caused the leak?
- Styrene monomer 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 was a temporary and partial shutdown of the plant because of the nationwide lockdown.
- The leak occurred as a result of styrene gas not being kept at the appropriate temperature.
- This caused a pressure build-up in the storage chamber that contained styrene and caused the valve to break, resulting in the gas leakage.
Is it under control?
- 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.
- The 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.
What are the safeguards against chemical disasters in India?
The law in India provides protection to victims of such chemical disasters. Here’s a look at some of these provisions:
Scars from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy
- At the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was the only relevant law specifying criminal liability for such incidents.
- The CBI had initially charged the accused in the case under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
- Soon after the tragedy, which had killed 2,000 people, the government passed a series of laws regulating the environment and prescribing and specifying safeguards and penalties.
Some of these laws were:
1) Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, which gives powers to the central government to secure the claims arising out of or connected with the Bhopal gas tragedy. Under the provisions of this Act, such claims are dealt with speedily and equitably.
2) The Environment Protection Act, 1986, which gives powers to the central government to undertake measures for improving the environment and set standards and inspect industrial units.
3) The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, which is insurance meant to provide relief to persons affected by accidents that occur while handling hazardous substances.
4) The National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997, under which the National Environment Appellate Authority can hear appeals regarding the restriction of areas in which any industries, operations or processes or class of industries, operations or processes shall not be carried out or shall be carried out subject to certain safeguards under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
5) National Green Tribunal, 2010, provides for the establishment of a tribunal for effective and expeditious disposal of cases related to environmental protection and conservation of forests.
Trial of such cases
- The legal gains made during the Bhopal Gas Leak, and subsequently with the Delhi Oleum Leakage case, held the principle of absolute enterprise liability for hazardous substances.
- That is, any manufacturer of hazardous or inherently injurious substance was to be held liable.
- Any incident similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy will be tried in the National Green Tribunal and most likely under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
- If an offence is committed by a company, every person directly in charge and responsible will be deemed guilty, unless he proves that the offence was committed without his/her knowledge or that he had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such an offence.
India’s handling of industrial disasters suffers from systemic apathy. To respond to the currently unfolding Visakhapatnam Gas Leak effectively and sensitively, it must reflect on and learn from its inadequate handling of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Why the gas leak should set off alarm bells?
Gruesome pictures and videos emerged, showing people having collapsed by the wayside. It was reminiscent of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
1) No lessons learnt from Bhopal
- The judicial processing of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy took approximately 26 years to yield a penalty that was not only disproportionate but was in itself a result of a great systemic disservice to those involved.
- The present regulation imposes 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.
- The government’s failure in protecting the legal rights of the gas victims is evident from the fact that years after the disaster, the registration of claimants is far from complete.
- This, however, hindered the ability of survivors to negotiate their own settlements on their own terms.
- Additionally, by the time the final judgement had been passed, most of the claimants had died.
2) Invisibility of victims
- As a result of the disorganized response on part of the state machinery, a mass evacuation programme, referred to as “Operation Faith,” was launched in Bhopal.
- This meant that a significant proportion of the affected population was moved away from the city, making it difficult and almost impossible for following up on health repercussions of the disaster.
- This invisibilisation of the survivors has become a strategy consistently employed by the state to sweep the enormity of the systemic failure that resulted in the Bhopal disaster, as well as that which succeeded it.
- Instead of working through the problem of providing medicare, both the state and city governments instead redirected their efforts towards wiping the problem away from the space.
3) Lax regulation continues
- Usually, in times of crises, governments tighten safety rules and regulations.
- But as panic over the economy mounts, governments could end up travelling in the opposite direction.
- The environment ministry has been giving clearances to industrial proposals through video conference for “seamless economic growth” during Covid-19.
- Lax regimes could become a haven for hazardous industries and sweatshops.
4) Operational security neglected
- Industries have failed to overhaul its working system urgently, especially that is tasked with safety practices.
- There are no regulatory measures to ensure safety at two ends—on-site and off-site.
- The on-site one involves all the safety of the in-house personnel and workers, and the off-site deals with ensuring the safety and well being of the habitats in the surrounding areas as well as the surrounding environment.
5) Multiple Laws with no enforcing agencies
- One of the most basic and overlooked aspects in the current time is the proper regulatory oversight.
- The regulators, like SPCBs, are limited in number.
- Add to it their inability to mount comprehensive and stringent oversight due to budgetary constraints.
6) Poor checks and monitoring
- Improper inspection and inspection report and show cause notices are not released in the public domain by state pollution control boards.
- The MoEF&CC gives the authorisation for the hazardous chemical storage, but inspection is done by factory inspector and by SPCB in case of isolated storage i.e. outside the industry.
- This is very absurd for safety considerations. Inspections are not done properly and are more of “having a look” rather than being a proper verification as per inspection checklist.
- This overtime perpetuates negligence by the safety personnel leading to accidents.
7) Low or no awareness
- Having a robust disaster management plan (DMP) is a pre-requisite for every industry. However, the availability of DMP does not suffice the purpose.
- What is needed most is to communicate the same with the local stakeholders. In the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy, we experienced how such miscommunication can lead to higher human casualties.
- The plant did have the DMP but it never informed the residents around the plant on the measures to be taken in case of any accident.
- However, looking at the current accident at Vizag, it seems that no lesson has been learnt from past accidents.
8) Judiciary has failed to relieve
- The gas leak is just yet another in the long list of such accidents that have happened until now and will happen in the future.
- So far, the NGT has issued notices to the Centre, LG Polymers India Pvt, Central Pollution Control Board and others in addition to directing LG Polymers India Pvt to pay Rs 50 crore an interim amount for damage to life.
- There are many other tragedies in the past, where the owners were not held accountable for the damage to life and were let out on bail.
9) Yet no fixation of accountability
- Fixing accountability for an accident or negligent actions is another aspect of the legal system that we often ignore.
- A suit is usually against a company involved in an accident. But, in such a situation, we let free the company employed individuals – responsible for negligent behaviour.
- In some cases, the industry does suspend or terminate their employment but that’s the maximum that it goes to.
Regulatory: We do not have a strong regulatory body to ensure proper enforcement of laws and regulations related to industrial accidents. The regulators, like SPCBs, needs to be given a revamp.
Monitoring and Reporting: Improving monitoring both inside and outside the industry and designing a proper protocol for reporting should be undertaken. Relevance must also be given to monitoring and prompt reporting of sudden events that can lead to industrial accidents.
Operational safety: In order to avert the rising number of industrial accidents, a more rational approach is required in terms of implementing the existing policies and practices properly. There are many guidelines and protocols for industrial safety that have been designed based on the outlines given in various acts and rules.
Ensuring thorough capacity building of the employees and management staff – Continually cultivate a safety standard among employees and management staff. Training employees about the importance of following safety measures as often as possible is very crucial. Supplemental training in body mechanics can reduce strain injuries, and keep employees safe during lifting and moving.
Ensuring a strict code and oversight on not taking shortcuts – Accidents happen when employees skip steps to complete a job ahead of schedule. Make sure all instructions are clear and organized to prevent undue mishaps in the workplace.
Employing the use of Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) – FMEA is a structured approach to discovering potential failures that may exist within the design of a product or process. There are various modes by which a process can fail and are called Failure modes that result in undesirable effects. However, FMEA is designed to identify, prioritize and limit these failure modes.
Installation of a proper alert system – This is one of the most essential components of the immediate response protocol and can really help prevent higher rates of fatalities and/or damage.
NDMA guidelines for Industrial chemical disasters
National chemical disaster management guidelines drawn up by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) are as follows:
- The NDMA guidelines for chemical safety call for harmonization of regulations like land use policy, standardization of national codes and practices and stringent enforcement of safety practices through audits and an inspection system.
- Industrial units using hazardous chemicals as raw materials will be required to have onsite and offsite emergency plans in place and put them to test by organizing regular mock drills.
- Given that coordination between the individual units and the local administration is crucial to the management of chemical disasters, the guidelines spell out a key role for the latter.
- This includes strengthening of state and district mechanisms for accurate and timely dissemination of warning of potentially hazardous gas leaks and chemical spills, GIS-based technologies, and ensuring testing of emergency plans through mock exercises, besides creating awareness and education.
- The guidelines call upon the industries handling hazardous chemicals to share resources and enter into mutual aid agreements.
- According to the NDMA, medical preparedness including creation of trained medical first responders, facilities for fast detection and decontamination, mobile hospitals/mobile teams and hospital disaster management plans need to be amalgamated with the preventive strategies to safeguard industrial processes and procedures.
Ensuring public safety, a comprehensive safety audit of all the industries should be taken up and a Standard Operating Procedure should be enforced.
- Preventing these tragedies is not a one man’s act. It will take the combined effort of competent authorities, the private sector, and society to prevent tragic environmental events from happening.
- Apart from the regular inspections, one must maintain safety processes internally to help prevent and/or reduce the frequency of natural gas leaks.
- Most of all, it is important to adhere to environmental norms. Taking environmental safety and public health risks seriously and promoting do-no-harm industrial development can make a big difference.
- There is a clear need to promote clean development that innovatively addresses potential negative impacts on the environment.
- To prevent future environmental disasters, all sectors could also do more to integrate environmental emergency preparedness and response activities into strategies and sustainable development programs.
- Some measures include: Developing policies to ensure that industries operate in accordance with technical and safety standards and allocating resources for risk assessment and monitoring.
- These measures could make a big difference in people’s health and wellbeing and avoid future tragedies.
Back2Basics: The Bhopal Gas Tragedy
- It occurred on the cold wintry night in the early hours of 3 December, 1984.
- At around midnight, the chemical reaction started in the Union Carbide (India) Limited factory that culminated in the leakage of deadly Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas from one of the tanks of the factory.
- As a result, a cloud of gas gradually started descending and enveloping the city in its lethal folds. And the city and lakes turned into a gas chamber.
- In the tragedy around 3000 lives of innocent people were lost and thousands and thousands of people were physically impaired or affected in several forms.
What is Methyl Isocyanate?
- Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) is a chemical that is used in the manufacture of polyurethane foam, pesticides, and plastics.
- It is handled in liquid form which can be easily burned and explosive. It evaporates quickly in the air and has a strong odour.
- Its molecular formula is CH3NCO or C2H3NO and its molecular weight is approx. 57.05 g/mol.
- It is used in the production of pesticides, polyurethane foam, and plastics.