Lessons not learned
Vizag gas leak reveals that lessons regarding industry safety practices learnt following the Bhopal gas tragedy have been all but forgotten by the concerned authorities
A chemical leak from the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam in the early morning hours of May 7, 2020, killed at least ten people, necessitated the evacuation of 3,000 and caused 270 hospitalisations across various hospitals while also triggering panic in the industrial coastal city. There are fears that the actual number of casualties from the incident may well be higher.
This incident has proved that concerned regulatory authorities and government did not learn any lessons from the 1984 Bhopal tragedy that is considered to be one of the world's worst industrial disasters in history when gas leaked from a pesticide plant.
The leak at Visakhapatnam has reminded us of the necessity of strong enforcement of Process Safety Management (PSM) systems in a real sense. This type of incident is often attributable to the unsafe state of machinery, equipment, lack of proper maintenance of storage tank, dangerous behaviours of the operators and the lack of a thorough safety management practice. According to preliminary reports, the chemical that caused the casualties was styrene.
The factory was not in operation as it was under lockdown. This accident took place when the factory was being prepared for reopening post-lockdown. The workers were preparing to restart the operation when the gas started to leak in the early hours. According to the statement issued by the company, styrene could have resulted in auto polymerisation which could have caused vaporisation due to stagnation and changes in temperature. This type of statement practically reflects the company's casual approach despite knowing that polymerisation reactions have caused numerous serious incidents in the past.
Styrene is one of the most widely used monomers and has a variety of applications in the chemical industry, being used to produce polystyrene, acrylonitrile–butadiene–styrene rubber, and many other polymers. However, monomers are thermally unstable. Studies conducted recently of 319 major industrial incidents with significant consequences based on the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) criterion found that 34 out of 319 major incidents worldwide during the years 1917–2011 were related to the reactive monomer/polymer process. Despite this, lessons have not been learned and styrene-related incidents continue.
The officers in the health and safety department, as well as the owners of the company, have known for a long time that styrene is toxic. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), short-term human exposure to low levels of styrene can cause irritation in the mucous membrane and eye and gastrointestinal effects. Long-term exposure, on the other hand, results in effects on the central nervous system, leading to headaches, fatigue, weakness, hearing loss, nerve damage and depression. Even low levels of chronic exposure to styrene may be carcinogenic.
While granting licenses to the owners of industries, particularly those handling hazardous chemicals, the foolproof 'Plan-Do-Check-Act' (PDCA) management model must be in place and it must be used to improve the proposal and develop countermeasures that would increase PSM performance and substantially lessen the impact of thermal hazards. This incident exposed negligence in establishing effective solutions for safety problems.
Public health and safety as well the environment are the major components of sustainable development. This incident exposed that public health and safety management systems were not practically devised to protect the people through scientific assessments. On the contrary, enforcement of safety management systems in this type of industry was outweighed by economic and political concerns.
The procedure and processes being adopted to prepare the PDCA management model for clearance from health and safety department and environment department have already eroded the trust of common people in regulatory agencies leading to loss of democratic accountability. In India, numerous procedural and bureaucratic challenges, as well as powerful political leaders exert pressure to reform the mode of clearance to establish and operate through streamlining and simplifying the licensing processes. Thereby, there is little scope to address corruption, larger territorial transformations and human right violations. Despite stipulating standards and strong guidelines to protect public health and safety as well the environment, enforcement is poor, corruption is rampant and the justice system is slow. But the revelation of corruption or manipulation in licensing processes and regular inspections for verifying the practice of safety management systems is difficult to prove because it is a practice inherently subtle, hidden or not evident though its existence seems certain.
The manipulation depends on the interests at stake and political or lobby pressures. Therefore, the owners of the industry do not feel any need to monitor the actual status and progress of such management systems for the safety of society at large. All the same, I do believe that critical appraisal will reveal the flaws in the management system that caused this accident. As per the law, an industry must fulfil requirements under the rules and regulations stipulated by the concerned authority to address legal, technical, environmental and social issues, including social welfare, compensation, safeguards and corrective measures, but these are toothless in practice. In the name of development, the regulatory agencies with political support demonstrate economic growth and employment benefits for operating this industry but many risks remain in play. Ignoring these factors at the start and intentionally turning a blind eye towards them at the initial stage and during operation is risky. As a result, sustainable development as promised by the Government of India has been compromised.
Considering the incidents already taking place in India, the regulatory authority must reconsider project licensing processes, modes of inspection and how to avoid such fatal lapses in the future.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal