Inquiries revealed that the company was continuing production without possessing a Valid Consent for Operation from the Pollution Control Board (PCB).

In the wake of the leakage of toxic gases from a pesticide plant in Srikakulam district which forced people in 18 surrounding villages to flee their homes, government agencies may have been exposed for their lack of disaster preparedness but the episode has raised larger concerns of public safety in Andhra Pradesh.

At 9.12 a.m. on June 30, 2012, a fiery explosion released toxic gases in Nagarjuna Agrichem, a unit run by the well-established Nagarjuna group founded by late K.V.K. Raju. It threatened to turn into a catastrophe but the damage was confined to injuries to 17 factory workers. On that bright, sunny day, there was no wind to carry the thick black smoke and gases in the direction of human habitations.

The A.P. Pollution Control Board and the Inspectorate of Factories were found wanting in discharging their mandate of conducting periodic and thorough inspections of polluting industries.

Established in 1994 in Arinam-Akkivalasa, about 10 km away from here, Nagarjuna Agrichem was manufacturing an intermediate of Myclobutanil, a pesticide. The raw materials that went into its production include para chlorophenyl acetonitrile, n. butyal bromide, 2-butyl-2-chloromethyl, acetonitrile, bromomethane and other hazardous chemicals. During the manufacture of this intermediate, an explosion occurred in a reactor in Block-V of the plant.

A massive fire that followed the blast engulfed all the floors in the block. As the fire equipment fell short of the requirement of a chemical factory of this size, water from the fire tenders would not reach the upper floors.

The fire raged on till 3 p.m. releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere. Advanced fire-fighting equipment was brought in from Visakhaptnam, over 100 km away.

As highly volatile solvents, toxic chemicals, pesticides and intermediates burnt, thousands of people in neighbouring villages within a radius of 10-15 km fled their homes.

In a bid to play down the inadequate disaster management and gravity of the incident, company and government officials argued that the chemicals being used by Nagarjuna Agrichem could not be construed as being highly hazardous to human health.

Inquiries revealed that the company was continuing production without possessing a Valid Consent for Operation from the Pollution Control Board (PCB).

The then District Collector K. Sreekanth had expressed concern over the risk of the release of effluents into the air causing respiratory and skin diseases to people living within a 25-km radius.

Mr. Sreekanth sent letters to the PCB on March 10, 2010, and January 12, 2011, asking it to stop the factory’s operations until the management installed effective pollution control equipment. But the PCB officials took his advice lightly.

G. Narayana Rao, a former sarpanch of Keshavadaspuram, said: “We have been fighting against the company for the last 18 years as it is polluting air and groundwater. The soil has got contaminated due to the runoff of chemicals, raw materials and products into the lakes. We are not able to take up agricultural activity near the factory as the soil is contaminated.”

PCB’s Environmental Engineer R. Lakshmi Narayana said several notices were issued in the last three years, following which the management installed new equipment worth Rs.50 crore to minimise the release of toxic gases from the plant.

“However, as the steps were not sufficient, we have issued orders to close it down.”

Environmentalists said the disaster in Nagarjuna-Agrichem should serve as a timely reminder to policymakers as there will be a proliferation of several industries in petroleum, chemicals and petro-chemicals, besides thermal stations in the next 4-5 years in north coastal Andhra, which is already witnessing violent agitations over issues of pollution and livelihood.