Vizag Gas Leak | Rs 50 Cr. deposited by LG Polymers to be appropriated towards its part liability in restoration of environment and compensation to victims; Erring officers of Andhra authorities need be brought to justice  

National Green Tribunal: A 3-Member Bench of A.K. Goel, Chairperson, and Sheo Kumar Singh, Judicial Member, and Dr Nagin Nanda, Executive Member, held that it was well within NGT’s jurisdiction to pass the earlier order dated 8th May 2020 wherein it had directed LG Polymers (India) (P) Ltd. to forthwith deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crores with the District Magistrate, Vishakhapatnam. The NGT had taken suo motu cognizance of the deadly gas leak in a factory owned by LG Polymers at Vishakhapatnam.

By the instant order, the NGT gave further directions which are summarised herein:

Directions

(i) The amount of Rs. 50 crores deposited by LG Polymers with the DM, Vishakhapatnam, will stand appropriated towards part liability and interim compensation to be spent for restoration of the environment and compensation for victims in accordance with the restoration plan to be prepared.

(ii) Restoration plan may be prepared by a Committee comprising 2 representatives each of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MoEF”) and Central Pollution Control Board (“CPCB”) and 3 representatives of the State Government to be named by the Chief Secretary, including the DM, Vishakhapatnam, within 2 months.

(iii) Final quantification of compensation may be assessed by a Committee comprising representatives of MoEF, CPCB and NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute). The said Committee will be at liberty to associate/co-opt any other expert institution or individual. The Secretary, MoEF may ensure constitution of such Committee within 2 weeks. The Committee may give its report within 2 months thereafter.

(iv) The Chief Secretary, Andhra Pradesh, may identify and take appropriate action against persons responsible for failure of law in permitting the Company to operate without statutory clearances within 2 months and give a report to the NGT.

(v) In view of the stand of the State Pollution Control Board and LG Polymers that it will not recommence its operation without requisite statutory clearances, NGT directed that if any such statutory clearances are granted and LG Polymers proposes to recommence, this aspect must be brought to the notice of the NGT so that compliance of law is ensured.

(vi) The MoEF may also constitute an Expert Committee to suggest ways and means to revamp monitoring mechanism to check and prevent violation of environmental norms and preventing any such recurrence in future in any of the establishments dealing with hazardous chemicals. A special drive may be initiated in this regard. An action taken report may be furnished within 3 months.

(vii) This order will not prejudice any criminal or other statutory proceedings in accordance with law.     

Timeline

The incident around which this whole issue revolves occurred in the wee hours of 7th May 2020 when reports started coming in that Styrene – a hazardous gas – has leaked from a chemical factory in R.R. Venkatpuram Village, Pendurthy Mandal, Vishakhapatnam. This resulted in the death of 11 persons (now 12) and hospitalisation of more than 100 people. More than 1000 people were reported sick. There was also damage to environment and habitat. The factory from which the gas leaked belonged to LG Polymers.

On 8th May 2020, the very next day, the National Green Tribunal initiated suo motu proceedings in the matter, and having regard to the prima facie material as to the loss of lives, public health and environment and liability of the Company engaged in inherently hazardous activity, directed the Company to forthwith deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crores with the District Magistrate, Vishakhapatnam. BY this order, the NGT also constituted a 6-member Committee to visit the site of the incident and submit its report. 

Notably, as soon as the incident occurred, the Andhra Pradesh High Court too took suo motu cognizance of the matter and directed the State Government to constitute of committee of appropriate officers not below the rank of Principal Secretaries.

On 14th May 2020, LG Polymers approached the Supreme Court against the above order passed by the NGT. Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for LG Polymers before the Supreme Court, challenged the constitution of the 6-member Committee by NGT. According to him, there was no occasion for NGT to appoint this further Committee when the High Court has already directed appointing of the Committee while taking suo motu cognizance. He also referred to some orders passed by the Supreme Court where the question whether the NGT could take suo motu cognizance of any matter was squarely in issue. While posting the matter for 8th June 2020, the Supreme Court gave liberty to LG Polymers to raise their contentions before the NGT.

Discussion

A. Suo motu jurisdiction

Rejecting the objection raised by LG Polymers to the taking of suo motu cognizance, the NGT noted that it has the purpose and power to provide relief and compensation to victims of environment damage, restitution of property, and restoration of environment. To effectuate this purpose, NGT has wide powers to devise its own procedure. In appropriate circumstances, this power includes the power to institute suo motu proceedings and not keep its hands tied in the face of drastic environmental damage and serious violation of right to life, public health and damage to property. This is especially so when the victims are marginalised and/or by reason of poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position cannot approach the NGT. The power is coupled with duty to exercise such powers for achieving the enumerated objects. Failure to exercise suo motu jurisdiction in such circumstances would render these victims without remedy, causing irretrievable injustice and breakdown of Rule of Law.

It was stated:

If NGT were powerless to institute suo motu proceedings where so warranted, as in the present case, it would be robbed of all its efficacy, because then the situation would be that if environmental damage causes loss of life, public health and property, the court can grant relief only if the victims found the means to approach it first. Such limitation, to a large extent, would emasculate NGT’s raison d’etre, and render it nugatory and futile.

Referring to various provisions of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 and several decision of the Supreme Court including State of Meghalaya v. All Dimasa Students Union, (2019) 8 SCC 177; Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog v. Union of India, (2012) 8 SCC 326 and M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCC 395, the NGT observed:

If this Tribunal is prevented from instituting suo-motu proceedings, these issues and violations [serious issues of environment, including air, water, soil, and other life-threatening pollution] would remain unaddressed, citizens’ inalienable right to life and other rights will stand jeopardized, and the serious and irreversible environment damage would continue unchecked.

B. Pendency of proceedings before the High Court

As regards pendency of proceedings in the High Court and other fora, and the Committees appointed by the various fora, the NGT noted that there is no conflict on the core issue being considered by it, a specialised Tribunal, as per mandate of law in judgements of the Supreme Court. The NGT stated:

The fact remains that the specialised statutory jurisdiction to award compensation is conferred on this Tribunal, which also has all and wide powers, procedure and mechanisms to resolve and award appropriate relief and remedies. Our attention has not been drawn to any other committee or court going in to the issue of compensation and restitution to the victims to the environment. Only this Tribunal has required deposit of an amount to be used for compensation, to be disbursed under orders of this Tribunal. Even the Company has deposited the amount and cannot object to abide by further orders in this regard. Thus, without prejudice to any other proceedings, the Tribunal can perform and exercise its statutory jurisdiction.

C. Strict and absolute liability of LG Polymers

Considering all the material, the NGT found that LG Polymers has strict and absolute liability for the environmental damage and consequential loss including to life and public health in this case. The stand of MoEF and the State PCB is unequivocal that LG Polymers did not have the requisite Environment Clearance (“EC”). There is also clear violation of the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989. Liability of LG Polymers is strict and absolute in the circumstances. The report of the Joint Committee constituted by the NGT filed on 28th May 2020 found LG Polymers liable. It opined that LG Polymers did not take proper care of the storage tank resulting in auto polymerization of styrene releasing excess heat which escaped from the goose-neck and dip hatch in the form of vapour. It is also mentioned that the unit was operating without the requisite EC. The State PCB had no clarity in the matter while granting the statutory consents without EC. This report is supported by clinching material consistent with the stand of the MoEF and State PCB.

D. Failure of Authorities and need for remedial measures

The NGT was of the view that further remedial action needs to be taken in the matter of bringing to justice erring officers of authorities in the State of Andhra and liability of the State or officers being further gone into. There is also need for rehabilitation plan utilising the interim and further compensation. Lastly, regulatory framework needs to be reviewed and strengthened, apart from identifying steps to ensure compliance of laid down safety norms and laying down further norms and procedure to avoid recurrence of such failures in future. The NGT said:

Safety of citizens and environment are of prime concern. Any economic or industrial activity, however necessary, has to be consistent with the safety of human beings and the environment. The damage to human life, human health and environment has to be restored by applying the ‘Sustainable Development’ principle, of which ‘Precautionary’ and ‘Polluter Pays’ principles are part. In this regard, significant role has to be played by the statutory authorities constituted under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

In view of such discussion and findings, the NGT issued the further directions as mentioned hereinabove. The matter is directed to be listed for further consideration on 3rd November 2020. [Gas Leak at LG Polymers Chemical Plant in Vishakhapatnam, In re, 2020 SCC OnLine NGT 129 , decided on 1-6-2020]

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