On 6 May 2020, a deadly gas leak at a factory of LG Polymers in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam killed 13 people and injured over 1,000 others. Several media reports termed it the worst gas leak in India since the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984. The company took over the factory in 1997, but had not gotten an environment clearance till the time of the leak. Documents from the union environment ministry and state environment department show that LG Polymers consistently evaded getting an environmental clearance for the factory by filing contradictory information about itself and taking months to file simple paperwork. Senior officials of the Andhra Pradesh government as well as state and central level agencies of the environment ministry were aware of this but did not raise questions. Eventually, the clearance application was stalled at the environment ministry, where it remained missing until just after the accident.
LG Polymers is an Indian subsidiary of a South Korean chemical-manufacturing company called LG Chem. Within days of the Visakhapatnam leak, the media reported that an LG Polymers official had admitted in an affidavit filed in 2019—which was available on the environment ministry’s website—that the factory was operating without an environmental clearance. In July 2020, the Andhra Pradesh police arrested the head of the factory and two junior staff of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board on charges of letting the plant operate without an environmental clearance. An investigation is in progress. Media coverage of the incident largely ended there, but documents accessed by The Caravan reveal that the company had submitted contradictory information to authorities several times to dodge or postpone environmental clearance, often without any objection from state and central government officials.
The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 was one of several law passed after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy to address legal gaps in industrial regulation. In 1994, and later in 2006, the central government issued the Environment Impact Assessment notifications under the EPA, making it compulsory for new industries and expansions of existing ones to get prior environmental clearance. The clearance process requires the company to submit a report on the environmental impact of a proposed project, conducting public hearings and having its assessment vetted by a government-appointed panel of experts. The process also includes doing risk assessments and preparing disaster management plans.
LG Polymers took over the Visakhapatnam plant in 1997. At the time, the plant did not have an environmental clearance. According to the 2019 affidavit, through the 2000s, LG Polymers made a dozen or so expansions to the facility. By 2017, the plant had nearly doubled its production capacity. Each expansion required an environmental clearance, but, according to the affidavit, the company did not seek one till the end of December 2017. This was despite the fact that the manufacturing process involved handling styrene, a hazardous chemical that can explode at room temperature. Factories using it come under the highest category according to the pollution control board—the “Red” category of polluting industries. LG Polymers converts styrene into its polymer versions, polystyrene, or PS, and expandable polystyrene, or EPS. These are some of the most commonly used polymers and are used in packaging electronics and in styrofoam cups.
A top official in the Andhra Pradesh government, who has been involved with the company’s environmental-clearance process, told me that the state government knew before 2017 that the factory needed an environmental clearance. The official did not wish to be named as he fears being implicated in the ongoing investigation into the leak. According to the official, the company argued that it did not need a clearance. “The company claimed that it was a simple polymerisation process so clearance was not necessary,” he said. The official told me that once, during a routine inspection, officers from the Central Pollution Control Board visited the factory but did not raise any questions about the lack of clearance. He, however, told me that he could not remember the date of the visit. He suggested that the state government was unbothered by the lack of an environment clearance because even the CPCB did not raise the issue.