Visakhapatnam: Scientists who are watching the official probes set up into the styrene gas leak from a factory on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam on May 7 are crying foul that the investigating committee is packed with "wrong persons" or inexperienced 'experts' whose only contribution has been to think aloud.
In one case, the probe panel includes a member of the AP Pollution Control Board (APPCB) who was on the very committee that okayed expansion of the plant in question.
The gas leak occurred from a plant operated by L G Polymers at Venkatapalem village outside Visakhaptanam in the early hours of May 7. Horrific scenes of people gasping for breath and falling like leaves in the street unfolded, and more than a dozen people perished before the gas was attenuated.
The state government set up a High-Power Committee (HPC) to investigate the tragedy, and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered constitution of another probe into the case.
Scientists say this is eyewash. Dr K Babu Rao, a retired senior scientist of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and a member of Scientists for People, said, "Instead of presenting a clear picture of the incident, the HPC is confusing people with unstructured loud thinking by inexperienced members. Their nomination was purely based on academics, but not experience with process. The lack of safety experts on the committee presents an issue of conflicts of interest."
More seriously, the probe team includes some experts who had a part in the expansion of L G Polymers.
"Some of the members have been associated with the APPCB as experts on the State Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC) which approved the expansion of LG Polymers and recommended consent and authorization without an EC (environment clearance). This cannot be simply brushed off. A probe into the systemic causes of the incident must include managerial and regulatory failures too."
He added, "This is like the APPCB investigating itself. It generates doubts about the objectivity of the probe."
The HPC comprises APPCB member secretary Vivek Yadav, who is also a member of the SEAC that scrutinizes project proposals. When contacted, he declined to comment on the matter.
However, APPCB chairman BSS Prasad said LG Polymers had approached the SEAC claiming to be a B-category industry. "But as it comes under A-category, the company was referred to the Expert Appraisal Committee of Union Environment Ministry. But it (the company) started operations without even getting their approval, " he said.
Scientists are questioning some of the observations of the HPC. One in particular is this: “Auto-polymerisation might have led to formation of styrene vapour that leaked out from the gooseneck and dip hatch.”
Experts in the Scientists for People call this a speculative statement. A month after the accident and several visits to the site, HPC could not present a picture of the tank roof and nozzles on it. A gooseneck releases the vapour downwards and spreads the release instead of in a jet. The HPC members might be hypothesizing without evidence, said Sagar Dhara, a Hyderabad-based environmental engineer and former faculty member of BITS Pilani.
Static electricity generation is a problem in styrene storage. Normal practices with other non-volatile liquids are not applicable to styrene. The reason deduced by the HPC is not supported by the best industrial practices, he opined.