Environment Ministry dithered on decision to close LG Polymers plant in Vishakapatnam

Documents show Section 5 of Environment Protection Act cited for plant closure.

August 05, 2020 11:39 pm | Updated August 06, 2020 09:05 am IST - NEW DELHI:

A file photo of smoke rising from LG Polymers plant in Vishakhapatnam.

A file photo of smoke rising from LG Polymers plant in Vishakhapatnam.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) decided against closing down operations of the LG Polymers plant in Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, from where styrene gas leaked, killing at least 12 and causing 4,000 to take ill on May 7. This, even though a senior official in the Ministry recommended that the plant be closed citing Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act that allows the Centre to shut down industrial units that grossly violate the law.

After the disaster, documents accessed via the Right to Information Act (RTI) show the MoEFCC convened a National Crisis Group with members from several Ministries and sought responses from the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) and State authorities enquiring into the causes of the accident and remedial measures taken.

Visakhapatnam gas leak | How negligence and violations led to a deadly disaster

The Environment Ministry also noted the previous history of the company. The chemical factory had been working since 1997 without appropriate clearances and had applied for clearance, in 2018, under rules made by the MoEFCC itself. These rules allow industrial projects in violation of environmental laws to apply to a special panel of experts called the ‘Violations Committee’ of the MoEFCC and — provided they meet certain criteria and make appropriate modifications — become compliant operations. LG Polymers had applied to this committee and its case was under consideration.

On May 18, according to the records accessed by environmental activist Vikrant Tongad and viewed by The Hindu , Geeta Menon, Joint Secretary, MoEFCC, issued two drafts. One, that sought updated information from multiple agencies such as the Central Pollution Control Board, APPCB, the Chief Inspector of Factories, and the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation on actions taken and whether the company had abided by the MoEFCC’s rules — called the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals (MSIHC) Rules, 1989 — that prescribe how hazardous and industrial chemicals ought to be stored.

The second draft was ostensibly to shut the unit down in lieu of its violations and the environmental and public health damage it had caused. The Hindu could not access the full text of this draft but a note by Ms. Menon says: “The Company’s case is at present being considered by the Violation EAC in the ministry. In view of the magnitude of the accident and the clear responsibility of the company, directions to the company for closure under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act is placed alongside for approval.”

Also read | LG Polymers moves Supreme Court against Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board

A decision on the matter was to be taken by the Secretary C.K. Mishra. He was due to retire on May 31 and left the decision to “his successor”, records of the meeting show. The matter then landed on the table of R.P. Gupta, the incumbent.

However, on June 18, another officer of the Ministry noted that the matter was “discussed” with the Secretary (Mr. Gupta) and the final decision was to only seek a status report on the compliance with the MSIHC. The reason proferred was that the APPCB had withdrawn the unit’s “consent to operate” and that the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which had imposed a ₹50 crore fine, was overseeing the process whereby the company was looking to recommence operations.

Also read | National Green Tribunal holds LG Polymers liable for the loss of life

“In view of the above, it is noted that the objectives desired through the set of proposed directions under Section 5 are already addressed by the actions initiated by APPCB and Hon’ble NGT. Therefore, Ministry may proceed only with the aspect of seeking status of compliance of MSIHC Rules,” according to the file-notings.

“It’s clear that the Environment Ministry, even though it has the necessary powers, doesn’t want to involve itself in shutting down the company even though the evidence for it being a serial violator of rules is in no doubt, as these records show,” Mr. Tongad told The Hindu .

On May 19, the MoEFCC-appointed ‘Violations Committee’ deferred a decision on the company’s application on the grounds that in the aftermath of the disaster, it would wait for final decisions by the NGT and other expert committees monitoring the aftermath of the industrial disaster.

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