Vizag polymer unit didn’t have environmental nod

Updated on May 09, 2020 07:31 AM IST
The environment ministry’s website says the plant violated norms by undertaking manufacturing without the clearance.
Municipal workers decontaminate outside of the LG Polymers Plant following a gas leak at the plant in Visakhapatnam.(Reuters Photo)
Municipal workers decontaminate outside of the LG Polymers Plant following a gas leak at the plant in Visakhapatnam.(Reuters Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

The Union environment ministry received LG Polymers India Private Limited’s application for environmental clearance for its Visakhapatnam plant only last month and the factory was operating without it, two officials aware of the matter said on Friday, a day after a toxic gas leak from the unit left 11 people dead.

“This polymer plant is a very old project (dating back to) when the EIA [environmental impact assessment] notification was not applicable. Subsequently, they did get relevant permissions from the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board. They didn’t come to us but applied to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority [SEIAA] for an environmental clearance in 2018. There was confusion whether they will be assessed by the state or by the environment ministry. So only last month, their application for the EC [environmental clearance] was forwarded by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority to us and it will be considered in due course,” said Geeta Menon, joint secretary, environment ministry.

She added the company had expanded the unit, which required it to seek the clearance. “Based on that notification the company applied to SEIAA, Andhra Pradesh, but the project was not appraised. The file has come to us now. We will have to look into what violations have taken place and how long they have been operating without a valid EC,” added Menon.

LG did not respond to queries from Hindustan Times sent on Thursday, and again on Friday.

The ministry issued a notification in March 2017 allowing the environmental appraisal of projects, which had started work or expanded beyond their capacity. Projects were allowed to apply for such post-facto clearances for six months from the notification date.

Environmental clearance involves the assessment of a project on the environment and people around it.

Officials said the unit was established much before EIA norms of 2006 came into force,and it may not have applied for the clearance. “There was no law for environment clearance process then. It appears that they may not have taken the EC. But these issues are still being investigated,” said CK Mishra, secretary, environment ministry.

The ministry’s website says the plant violated norms by undertaking manufacturing without the clearance. A notarised affidavit by LG Polymers India Private Limited on the ministry’s website admits the plant was functioning in violation of the EIA notification as it did not have an environment clearance for manufacturing polystyrene.

According to the document dated May 8, 2019, the plant obtained “consent for establishment” in 2001 and “consent for operation” in 2002 from the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB). Subsequently, “minor expansions” of the facility were undertaken with APPCB’s permission, the affidavit says.

In all, those “minor expansions” entailed six enhancements in the plant’s capacity; for expandable polystyrene from 45 to 102 TPD and for polystyrene from 235 to 313 TPD between 2004 and 2017.

The affidavit says when the company applied for the clearance for the capacity expansion to the environment ministry, it was found the unit was “operating without a valid environmental clearance” and in “violation” as per the applicable statute.

Petrochemical based processing units are required to undergo the EIA as they fall under the red or a highly polluting category.

“As on this date our industry does not have a valid environmental clearance substantiating the produced quantity…however we are continuing our operations with valid consent from the State Pollution Control Board,” the affidavit says. It refers to a 2017 Supreme Court judgement mandating 100% penalty for illegal operations in violation of various statutes including the Environment Protection Act. The affidavit says that the company is aware that the environmental appraisal of the project will be subject to a bank guarantee equivalent to the sum needed for the redemption management plan and natural and community resource augmentation plans.

The unit was established in Vishakapatnam in 1965 by M/S Hindustan Polymers Limited, which was amalgamated with Mc Dowell and Company in 1982, according to the affidavit.

Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, said a perusal of the documents reveals the project was still under environmental appraisal or a post-facto approval when the accident happened. “This is not merely a legal problem. It poses serious life, health and livelihood risks for people and can cause irreversible environmental damage.”

Kohli said the project was in operation even as its application was pending under a “violations” category, which means its social and environmental impacts were never assessed. “This brings to light a systemic problem of the environment clearance process as thousands of projects have now come before the environment ministry disclosing that they were operating without approval. Such a system, which was earlier justified as a one-time amnesty, is now proposed as a routine exercise as part of the proposed EIA 2020 amendments. This defeats the idea of precautionary principles and prior environment clearance.”

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