On May 7th, there was a leak of styrene gas from a leading South Korean company’s chemical plant. This 3-tonne gas leak killed 11 people in the vicinity and affected a thousand more. Furthermore, styrene gas is very harmful to the vegetation and creatures of the area.
The above incident had occurred in Visakhapatnam in the plant of LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. The National Green Tribunal had taken suo moto action only after the incident was widely reported on the national media.
Background of the Case
What is Styrene & how lethal is it?
Styrene is an organic compound that is used in polymer processing. This gas, if leaked, can react with oxygen present in the atmosphere to form styrene dioxide. The Manufacture Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989 (Schedule I) have classified it as a toxic and hazardous chemical.
The effects of short-term exposure are respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes and the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues. Long-term exposure can be life-threatening as it may affect the central nervous system and cause other related problems like peripheral neuropathy.
How did the leak take place?
This leak occurred as the gas was not stored at the right temperature. This, in turn, led to pressure build-up in the storage chamber and the valve breaking off, resulting in a leak. The facility currently extends over 600 acres of land, including the nearby residential areas. The impact zone of this leak was at least 2-3 km.
Many articles on the internet compared this leak to the Gas Leak of 1984. However, we need to keep in mind that the intensity of that leak was much higher than what happened here. Also, the Union Carbide Corporation did know that the gas could leak well in advance, which was not the case here.
Strict Liability & Absolute Liability
As soon as the NGT heard of this incident, it directed applying the principle of Strict Liability instead of Absolute Liability for damage to the surroundings and people. Now, this is where the problem begins.
The significant difference between the two liabilities is that strict liability contains exceptions through which the accused can be saved from prosecution. Whereas in absolute liability, there is no exception at all.
Principle: Any person who indulges in “non-natural” use of land and keeps hazardous substances on his premises will be held strictly liable if such substance escapes the premises and causes any damage.
Principle: An enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas, owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous activity taken.
Exception from liability if such damage caused in case:
● Plaintiff’s Fault
● An Act of God
● Act of a third party
● If the hazardous activity was being carried out with the consent of the plaintiff.
There is no exception to industries involved in hazardous activities, and they are liable for damage so caused, despite observance of due diligence.
This incident shows us how the big companies escape the trials by the use of power. Mostly in such cases, the folks from the plant will be tried, but the parent company will be free from any liability due to the procedures in law. Also, the government has been trying to relax the restriction on these MNCs to increase the FDI in the nation at the cost of our environment and resources.
 Vizag Gas Leak: Why the NGT Should Have Applied Absolute, Not Strict, Liability The Wire, https://thewire.in/rights/vizag-gas-leak-ngt-strict-absolute-liability (last visited Mar 19, 2021)  SCHEDULE I, http://moef.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/SCHEDULE-I.html (last visited Mar 19, 2021)  Visakhapatnam: What Were the Health Effects of the Styrene Gas Leak? The Wire Science, https://science.thewire.in/health/visakhapatnam-styrene-gas-leak-health-effects/ (last visited Mar 19, 2021)  Analysis of Vizag gas leak tragedy and environmental law iPleaders, https://blog.ipleaders.in/analysis-vizag-gas-leak-tragedy-environment-law/ (last visited Mar 19, 2021)