Vizag gas leak: A year on, villagers near the plant continue to live in fear

Hindustan Times | Srinivasa Rao Apparasu | May 08, 2021

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

A year on since Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh woke up to one of its worst environmental disasters – leakage of poisonous gas from a storage tank of LG Polymers Ltd, a South Korean company on the outskirts of the city, killed 12 people while nearly 500 were hospitalised – villagers settled near the plant continue to live in a state of fear.

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

On May 7 last year, poisonous Styrene gas leaked from one of the tanks at LG Polymers Ltd due to sudden rise in temperature at the bottom of the tank at around 3.30 am. The gas slowly spread over a radius of about 3 km, affecting five villages — Venkatapuram, Venkatadri Nagar, Nandamuri Nagar, Pydimamba Colony and BC & SC Colony.

Srinu Yadav, a transport worker from Venkatapuram, said the incident had created havoc in the lives of several villagers, particularly the poor and the middle class. “Many in these villages, particularly Venkatapuram, where the LG Polymers plant is located, continue to face health issues, like breathing problems, asthma, and gastrointestinal disorders,” Yadav said.
The villagers recall how thanks to the timely alert from locals, the authorities of Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation and the district administration swung into action and shifted people from the affected areas with the help of police to safer areas.

The Jagan Mohan Reddy government paid ex gratia of ₹1 crore each to the families of the 12 who died in the incident, besides ₹10 lakh for persons who were kept on ventilator for a long time, ₹1 lakh each to 485 people who were hospitalised with serious complications and ₹25,000 each to 99 people who were treated as outpatients. Another 19,893 people were paid ₹25,000 each towards compensation.
“In the next one week, three others from the affected villages died but the authorities attributed their deaths to some other reasons. In the last one year, at least 15 people, including my father-in-law, died due to symptoms that surfaced after the Styrene gas leak. But no forensic studies were done to prove they were related to the gas leak tragedy,” Yadav said.

An eight-member expert committee headed by state special chief secretary (environment and forests) Neerabh Kumar Prasad, which was constituted to probe into the mishap, came up with a series of suggestions, including periodical testing of health conditions of villagers in the area so as to monitor the short-term and long-term impact of the Styrene gas on their health.
“Subsequently, a committee of health experts was appointed to regularly monitor the health of people in the affected villages, but it did not commence its work because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” K Kumara Mangalam, a local trade union leader, said.

He added that the government has washed off its hands by setting up a primary health centre in a local school, but it hardly helped. “Except for an occasional visit by a junior doctor and para-medical staff, nothing much has happened. It doesn’t have any facilities, though the authorities promised to set up a hospital in the area,” Mangalam said.

A study conducted in March this year by local environmentalists under Alluri Sitarama Raju Vignana Kendram on environment, health and safety of people in the villages surrounding LG Polymers, observed that the GVMC authorities were neither monitoring water bodies periodically nor getting an expert study on the water quality.
“Most of the households are depending on the canned water for drinking purposes and spending between ₹300- 600 per month,” said K Eswar, another resident.

An official of the GVMC, however, denied contamination of the drinking water in villages. “Scientists belonging to CSIR-National Environment Engineering Research Institute studied the water samples in and around the area and found that styrene is insoluble in water and would drain away in case of water flow. We are supplying Godavari water to local residents through pipeline,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The LG Polymers has shut its operations since the tragedy and the Korean management, with special permission from the Ministry of Shipping, shifted 13,000 tonnes of unused Styrene in two ships back to Seoul. On April 6 this year, the company got permission from the high court to move and sell leftover raw material, finished product and packaging material from the plant as it could pose danger to the public health if left unattended.
The court directed that sale process be done in the supervision of a three-member committee appointed by the state government and the company deposit the sales proceeds in an account in the name of Vizag district collector.

The villagers in the area are apprehensive that the LG Polymers might restart their operations once the cases pending in the high court and the National Green Tribunal were settled. “Unless the plant is completely shifted from the area, the fear of recurrence of such incidents will continue to haunt us,” said S Pydi Raju, a resident of Venkatapuram.

When contacted, state industries minister Mekapati Gautam Reddy said the government has not focused on LG Polymers as of now as it was busy tackling the Covid-19 situation. “We shall take appropriate decision after discussing with the industries department authorities later,” he said.