Context:

  • A gas leak, reminiscent of the ,has claimed at least 11 lives and affected thousands of residents in five villages in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
  • The source of the leak was a styrene plantowned by South Korean electronics giant LG, located at RRV Puram near Gopalapatnam, about 15 kms from the coast city.
  • Initial reports indicate that several people from the surrounding villages fell unconscious on the roads. While six died due to prolonged exposure to the gas, another two died while trying to escape from the leak.

Bhopal gas tragedy, Yet to learn :

  • The government’s failure in protecting the legal rights of the gas victimsis evident from the fact that close to 11 years after the disaster the registration of claimants is far from complete.
  • According to official figures in all 5,97,306 claims have been registered with the directorate of claims, Madhya Pradesh government.
  • The single largest omission is the non registration of claims of over 1,50,000 gas affected persons who were less than 18 years age at the time of registration of claims.
  • Such a situation has been brought about primarily due to the arbitrary decision of the government officials in charge of claim registration to disallow persons under 18 to register their claims.
  • This illegal practice was carried out under the erroneous notion that since minors cannot be owners of property, they cannot be entitled to compensation amounts.

Vizag gas leak: What is styrene?

  • It is a flammable liquidthat is used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, fiberglass, rubber, and latex.
  • According to Tox Town, a website run by the US National Library of Medicine, styrene is also found in vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, and in natural foods like fruits and vegetables.

What happens when exposed to styrene?

  • As per the US-based Environment Protection Agency (EPA), short-term exposure to the substance can result in respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues.
  • And long-term exposure could drastically affect the central nervous system and lead to other related problems like peripheral neuropathy. It could also lead to cancer and depression in some cases.
  • However, EPA notes that there is no sufficient evidence despite several epidemiology studies indicating there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms include headache, hearing loss, fatigue, weakness, difficulty in concentrating etc.
  • Animal studies, according to the EPA, have reported effects on the CNS, liver, kidney, and eye and nasal irritation from inhalation exposure to styrene.

What caused the leak?

  • A statement from LG Polymers said that stagnation and changes in temperature inside the storage tankcould have resulted in auto polymerization and could have caused vapourisation.

Neutralising Styrene gas to take more time:

  • The high-powered committee will inquire into the causes of the leakage, including possible lapses in the plant’s adherence to safety protocols; it will study the long-term effects of the gas leakage on the surrounding villages, if any and recommend action to be taken against the company if negligence is found.
  • The committee will also suggest measures to be taken by industry units, including safety audits, to prevent such mishaps in future and will also make observations and suggestions for all similar industrial plants, which will be included in their report to be submitted within a month.

Where does responsibility for Industrial Disasters lie?

  1. The legal gains made during the Bhopal Gas Leak, and subsequently with the Delhi Oleum Leakage case, held the principle of absolute enterprise liability for hazardous substances.
  2. That is, any manufacturer of hazardous or inherently injurious substance was to be held liable. However, the Public Liability Insurance Bill (now Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991) took away these legal gains.
  3. Aimed at providing immediate relief to the survivors of industrial accidentsand incidents, the bill not only provided an inadequate treatment of the scope and definition of “hazardous substance,” but it also allowed for the centre and state governments to excuse themselves from any liability arising out of industrial disasters.
  4. Moreover, despite the precedents before it, it took a narrow viewing of the injuries that manifest due to industrial disasters.
  5. The National Green Tribunal sought response from the Centre, South Korean company LG Polymers, Central Pollution Control Board after 11 people died in the Vishakhapatnam gas leak tragedy.
  6. A bench headed by NGT Chairperson issued notices after taking cognizance of the incident in which hundreds more were admitted to the hospital, with several critical.

Conclusion:

  • India’s handling of industrial disasters suffers from systemic apathy. To respond to the currently unfolding Visakhapatnam Gas Leak effectively and sensitively, it must reflect on and learn from its inadequate handling of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
  • Imposes a no-fault liability on the owner of hazardous substance and requires the owner to compensate victims of accident irrespective of any neglect or default. For this, the owner is required to take out an insurance policy covering potential liability from any accident.
  • Ensuring public safety, a comprehensive safety audit of all the industries should be taken up and a Standard Operating Procedure should be enforced.
  • Without any hesitations, the officials should come up with suitable recommendations to avoid such mishaps in future.
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