Styrene Gas Leakage and Absolute Liability

While Covid – 19 Pandemic is still hovering over all the world, Andhra Pradesh saw another tragedy on May 7, 2020. In the morning of 7th May there was a leakage of hazardous gas called styrene from a chemical factory owned by the south Korean company LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd, when it reopened after the lockdown was relaxed. This factory is situated in Venkatpuram village in Andhra Pradesh State. This incident caused death of 11 people and hospitalization of more than 100 people out of them 25 are reported to be serious. More than 1000 people are reported to be sick in the surrounded area of the factory.

The Hon’ble Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh announced as a compensation of Rs. 1 Crore each to the next of kin of the deceased, Rs. 10 Lakh each who are undergoing treatment on ventilator and Rs. 1 lakh to others who are hospitalized but not on ventilator. 

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) Principal bench took cognizance on its own about this incident and constituted five Member Committee to inspect the sight and to submit its report before the next date of hearing of the case which is on May 18, 2020. The court observed that the enterprise has failed to comply with the Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989 and other statutory provisions and so attracts the principle of strict liability under environmental laws. The authority who is responsible for authorizing and regulating such activities may also be held responsible for their negligence if any while dealing with such matter said the bench. Court also directed LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. to deposit an initial amount of Rs. 50 Crore with the District Magistrate of Vishakhapatnam with regards to the prima facie material regarding the extent of damage to life, public health and environment. While Court issuing notice to Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board, District Magistrate, Vishakhapatnam, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. the Court said that the affected parties have to be given the opportunity of being heard.

Along with NGT, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and High Court of Andhra Pradesh have also taken cognizance of the deaths and people suffering from this incident. NHRC has issued notice to Director General of Police of Andhra Pradesh to inform within four weeks about registration of FIRs in the matter and status of the investigation being conducted. The Commission had also brought the matter to the notice of the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs and has asked through its Secretary to examine whether the norms laid down under relevant provisions of the law are being implemented at the particular industrial unit and to submit a report to the Commission within 4 weeks. The High Court bench of Andhra Pradesh directed the State Government to ensure the opening up of the private hospitals in Visakhapatnam area to provide medical aid to those who are suffering and directed to take immediate steps to prevent further leakage of Styrene gas by sprinkling water or other substances. The State Legal Services Authority has been directed to assign officers to supervise the issue and the Principal District Judge of Visakhapatnam is to coordinate with the State officials on the issue.

When the similar incident took place in Delhi where Oleum Gas had leaked and many people were affected. (M. C. Mehta vs Union of India popularly known as the Oleum Gas Leak case), the supreme court had held that any enterprise that is engaged in an inherently dangerous activity is `absolutely’ liable to compensate all those affected by an accident. The exception to the strict liability rule will also not be considered. Now in present case NGT has attracted the principle of “Strict Liability”. It is pertinent to note that the strict liability principle has several exceptions including an exception of ‘an act of god’. To take away these exceptions created to the principle derived by Justice Blackburn, our apex court had specifically laid down the absolute liability principle. Therefore, It will be interesting to see in the further proceedings of NGT whether absolute liability principle will be given correct effect.