Gas Leak at LG Polymers: Exploiting Legal Loopholes Must End

The styrene gas leak brought in the loopholes and weaknesses of the acts and rules related to hazardous chemicals. These infirmities should be promptly mitigated to ensure the safety of people and the environment.

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Vishakhapatnam Gas leak victims

In early hours of 7 March, a deadly gas leaked from the plant of the South Korean electronics giant LG in RRV Puram in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. Styrene gas that escaped from the LG Polymer plant claimed 11 lives till now. It also negatively affected flora and fauna. Vizag gas leak is an eerie reminiscent of Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, a chemical disaster which took lives of thousands of people.

Styrene gas is used for the manufacture of plastic and rubber. The human health is fatally affected when exposed to this gas. Irritation in the eyes and upper respiratory tract are the immediate symptoms of exposure to it. Chronic exposure results in headache, depression and fatigue and negative effects on the central nervous system and kidney.

UNDRR defines a chemical disaster as “any unplanned event involving hazardous substances that cause, or is liable to cause, harm to health, the environment, or property. This excludes any long-term events (such as chronic pollution)”. Last decade saw 130 significant chemical accidents reported in India which led to 259 deaths. In the country, 1861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units are exposing more than one-third of districts to the risk of chemical disasters. There is the presence of registered and hazardous factories and numerous unorganised sector industries dealing with hazardous chemicals. They pose a serious threat of complicated chemical disasters.

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Legal System for Mitigation of Chemical Risks

Before the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the Indian Penal Code was the only way for posing criminal liability against such incidents. Related cases were filed under section 304 of IPC (culpable homicide not resulting in murder). The charges were later filed based on section 304A (death due to negligence and imposes a maximum punishment of two years and a fine). However, the 1996 Supreme Court judgement held that there is no evidence to show that the accused had any knowledge for the same. This led to reframing of the charges.

The immediate response of the government to the tragedy was Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985. It gave powers to the central government to secure the claims arising out of or connected with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Such claims are dealt speedily and equitably under the provisions of this Act.

Subsequent gas leaks and chemical risks posed by industries made it necessary for the proper administration of the chemical industries.

The government passed a series of laws regulating the working of industries and safeguarding the public from these hazards. 

Gas leaks affect the climate. The Environment Protection Act, 1986 thus became necessary. It gives powers to the central government to undertake measures for improving the environment and set standards and inspect industrial units.

LG Polimers

After the 1984 tragedy, Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) notified two sets of rules. These rules were for the regulation of manufacturing, use and handling of the hazardous chemicals, such as Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals (MSIHC) Rules, 1989 and Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Response), (CAEPPR) Rules, 1996.

The Chemical (MSIHC) Rules, 1989 specified that the occupiers of MAH units are accountable for on-site emergency plans. The Chief Inspector of these industries is liable for off-site emergency plans also. The objectives were the prevention of major chemical accidents industries and limit the effects of industrial chemical accidents.

CAPER Rules of 1996 was a backup for crisis management. It prescribes the criteria for MAH installations.

The Public Liability Insurance act of 1991 provides relief to the persons affected by hazardous substance-related accidents by providing insurance.

The National Appellate Authority was established under the 1997 act. It can hear appeals regarding the restriction of areas for certain operations, processes of industries or class of certain industries. These activities are subject to safeguards under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was established in 2010. It disposes cases related to environmental protection and conservation of forest efficaciously. Any case similar to Bhopal Gas Tragedy will be tried in the NGT and most likely under the provisions of Environment act 1986. The person directly responsible for the offence will be deemed guilty, unless it is proved that the offence was committed without his/her knowledge or that s/he had exercised due diligence for the prevention of the commission of such offence.

Absolute vs Strict Liability

NGT took a suo motu cognizance in the matter of Vizag gas leak. Several reports suggested its similarity with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy indicating the application of absolute liability. The principle of absolute liability comes from the MC Mehta case, 1987. The evolved absolute liability implies that an enterprise engaged in any dangerous or hazardous activity causes harm. The enterprise will have to compensate for damages. The enterprise cannot claim that the harm was caused due to negligence (absence of due care) or that it had taken all reasonable precautions.

However, the NGT directed the application to strict liability. The principle of strict liability states that a person who brings on to his/her land anything likely to cause harm is liable to pay compensation when the thing escapes and causes harm. The liability is not when the escape is due to an act of strangers, of god, due to the person injured, when it happens with the consent of the person injured or with statutory authority.

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The NGT also asked LG Polymers to deposit Rs 50 crore with the collector. The tribunal determined the amount after factoring in the company’s financial worth and the extent of the damage. People are questioning this decision of NGT.

Styrene gas is a hazardous chemical under MSIHC rules of 1989. It has long-term health effects. Despite this, the tribunal upheld the strict liability.

Strict liability also demands the causes to be known. The present case has various theories- mishandling of valve control and changes in temperature inside the tank. The government should come up with absolute liability by considering the various reasons stated. An important lesson learnt from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy was MNCs must be held liable. There were many rules and acts passed to mitigate it. However, it seems that the parent foreign company can escape from these laws. The Indian companies are tried due to the technicalities of law.

What Needs to be Done?

The government seeks to relax certain laws related to industries to promote industrial activities. This relaxation comes at the cost of ecological damage. The government should make stringent laws against the parent foreign companies too. It should ensure compliance with existing rules and regulations. R&D initiative by the government should strive to develop newer technologies for the prevention of hazards. A chemical accident investigation board can be set up for speedy investigation and mitigation of the accident.

Industries should be prepared for emergencies. They should ensure regular maintenance of the plant facility and equipment. The top officials should ensure improved safety measures. The styrene gas leak brought in the loopholes and weaknesses of the acts and rules related to hazardous chemicals. These infirmities should be promptly mitigated to ensure the safety of people and the environment.