The Indian arm of LG Chem, a South Korean multinational, has been accused of negligence after a gas leak at its plant killed 12 people. BBC Telugu’s Deepthi Bathini finds out what happened.
People who live close to the LG Polymers factory – on the outskirts of the southern city of Visakhapatnam – woke up in the early hours of 7 May to a pungent smell.
As their eyes began to itch and burn, many fled their homes on foot, stopping only to rouse sleeping neighbours, asking them to leave immediately. Videos from that morning show people gasping for breath and lying unconscious on the streets.
Thousands were evacuated from their homes, and hundreds were admitted to hospital, complaining of breathing difficulties. Twelve of them, including two children, died. So did at least 32 animals – cows, buffalo and dogs. Survivors, officials say, will need regular health check-ups because the effects could last for some time.
The cause of the deaths was inhalation of vapours of styrene gas, a toxic compound, that had leaked from the factory.
The following day, police filed a culpable homicide complaint against the company’s management for causing the deaths through negligence. An investigation by BBC Telugu – based on factory inspection reports and interviews with officials and former employees of the company – has found evidence of this. It also found that the plant was operating without the required environmental clearance.
LG has not responded to the BBC’s questions. But, in an earlier statement, the company said it was probing the cause of the leak.
‘I want justice’
“My daughter’s seventh birthday was just two weeks away,” said N Latha.
She was standing over her child’s body, outside the gates of the LG Polymers plant.
On 9 May, she and hundreds of protesters gathered outside the factory, demanding its closure. Like Ms Latha, some of them had brought the bodies of their loved ones along – all victims of the gas leak.
“How can I continue to live? I want justice,” Ms Latha said.
“Please close the factory! You need to give me justice,” she cried while accosting a senior police official at the location.
The leak had been plugged but the smell lingered. Trees near the factory were discoloured, and banana plants in surrounding farms had turned black and felt like stone.
Officials said they had collected water, soil and vegetable samples for testing, and were awaiting results.
“But we have advised residents not to consume any perishable foods or use groundwater. We have arranged for tankers instead,” city commissioner Srijana Gummala said.
What caused the leak?
The leak happened as the plant was being prepared to re-open for the first time since 24 March, when India went into lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Even though the plant is located on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, it’s still close to dense neighbourhoods and villages. The port city, the biggest in the state of Andhra Pradesh, has expanded rapidly in recent decades.
The factory was set up in 1961 to manufacture polymers of styrene, a flammable liquid. It’s used to make versatile plastics that go into various products, from refrigerators and air conditioners to food containers and disposable tableware.
Styrene is stored in tanks at temperatures under 20C because it evaporates easily. And the temperature has to be monitored regularly. But sources say the temperature rose significantly on 7 May, triggering the deadly leak.
Sources told BBC Telugu that only one of the three shifts to monitor the tank temperature was staffed during the lockdown. Officials told the BBC that they had issued permits for 15 LG employees responsible for maintenance and security to go to work.
“There seems to be negligence in terms of maintenance during the lockdown,” said an official, adding that even the emergency siren had not gone off.
Locals said they heard no siren on the morning of the leak – and had not heard it since 2017.
Former employees said the siren used to go off every time the shift changed, and was also meant to go off during emergencies. But, they said, a former managing director had discontinued the practice.
“As the siren had not been used for long, it did not work. We raised the issue during an inspection but the officer laughed it off,” said a former employee.
“The company said the siren did go off and people may not have heard it in their panic. But it needs probing,” said P Jaganatha Rao, member of the national environment tribunal, who was part of the team that did a preliminary inspection of the site.
A poor record
The BBC has also seen earlier inspection reports by the labour (department of factories) department, which show evidence of poor maintenance in the factory.
A report dated August 2016 says the cement cladding protecting one of the six styrene tanks was “damaged and needs to be replaced at once”.
A report from December 2019 says that the pipes in the water sprinklers of one of the tanks was corroded – these sprinklers help lower the temperature in the tanks. The report also says one of the tanks storing pentane, another toxic gas, also showed evidence of poor maintenance.
The report recommended that the company erect a containment wall around the styrene tanks, and a safety audit. Neither the company nor officials have responded to questions about whether these issues were addressed.
Mr Rao told the BBC that the tanks storing styrene were old. “The new tanks have sensors and monitor systems, but old ones do not have these technologies,” he said. “Thankfully, the safety valve was working well. Otherwise, the scale of the accident would have been catastrophic.”
In the days following the leak, it emerged that LG Polymers had been operating since 2017 without the necessary environmental clearance.
The company had needed a fresh permit when it decided to expand production to include a new line of products – and it filed an application with the federal government on 22 December 2017.
On 12 April 2018, the company withdrew the application and filed a fresh one the same day, but this time it approached the state, and not federal, authority. Its second application was accompanied by an affidavit, which the BBC has seen.
In it, the company admitted that it had been operating without the required permit, but said it was doing so with consent issued by the state’s pollution control board.
LG is one of several companies that has violated the law by starting operations without the necessary clearances. And all of these companies applied for the permits once the federal government said – in 2017 – that it would grant them “post facto”, or after operations had begun.
Initially the power to do this only lay with the federal government, but in March 2018, it said states could grant these permits as well. LG Polymers is yet to receive the clearance.
The incident has put the spotlight on the government, which has been criticised for lax regulation, and India’s poor record in this matter. Industrial accidents as a result of flouted safety norms and poor enforcement often make the news – the worst being a gas leak at a pesticide factory in 1984 that killed several thousand people and injured half a million others.
In a letter to the government, EAS Sarma, a former bureaucrat, criticised the decision to grant approvals to companies that had violated the rules.
He accused the environment ministry of “endangering people’s lives and damaging the environment” with its actions.
Locals, meanwhile, said they are exploring legal options to close down the factory altogether.
“We have smelled the gas on other days during morning walks,” says Murali Ambati, another local who was at the protest.
“We have raised concerns earlier,” he says. “We even complained to the pollution control board, but no action was taken.”