Toxic gas leak at Indian chemical plant kills at least 11 and hospitalises hundreds
A styrene gas leak at an Indian chemical plant has killed 11 people and caused hundreds to be hospitalised on Thursday, 7 May 2020. The incident occurred at an LG Polymers plant, which lies near a village of at least 3 000 people on the outskirts of the city of Visakhapatnam in the south-eastern coastal region of India. Bodies lay crumpled on the ground beside toppled motorcycles and cars as suffocating toxic gas rose from a chemical plant in southern India in the early hours of Thursday morning. Roads near the site of the fatal leak in the state of Andhra Pradesh were filled with hundreds of people fleeing the noxious gas, according to footage from the scene, many carrying the injured and unconscious over their shoulders. Rescuers from India's National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) wearing hazmat suits and gas masks were also seen running with limp bodies in their arms. “Most of the dead were driving or standing on terraces outside their homes when they lost consciousness and fell where they stood, while others slipped into unconsciousness while they were sleeping,” said Mekapati Goutham Reddy, minister for Industries, Commerce and Information Technology in Andhra Pradesh. Three of those who died were children, he added. There are 10 000 people within the affected area of the gas leak; about 5 000 have been evacuated.
Almost 1 000 people were directly exposed to the gas and about 20 to 25 people are in critical but stable condition, said Kamal Kishore from the National Disaster Management Authority. The gas has been identified as styrene, a flammable liquid that is used to make a variety of industrial products, including polystyrene, fibreglass, rubber and latex.
Gopalapatnam Police helped hundreds of people to escape the apocalyptic scenes in ambulances, police vehicles and state-provided buses, while others left on their own, said local police inspector V Ramanayya. At least 285 people were admitted to hospital, said K Kanna Babu, managing director of the state's disaster response force. Individuals were taken to hospitals across the city to be treated for exposure of the gas.
Babu said the district administration received the call by around 3h30am and his team was notified around 5h30am and were on-field by 6h00am. But, he added, "We couldn't immediately enter because the smell of the gas was very pungent so we had to wait for half an hour before we could go in and start evacuating people." The gas came out the factory's chimney and was carried by the wind, he said.
Photos tweeted by Satya Pradhan, director general of the NDRF, showed team members in hazmat suits and gas masks helping residents to safety. Disaster response teams have brought the leakage in the silo to a minimum and it is almost under control, authorities confirmed in a press briefing. "Overall the situation is under control. Now, the situation is of rehab and treatment," said Pradhan.
How it happened
It is not immediately clear what led to the leak. However, the plant, which is owned by the South Korean company LG Chem, was preparing to reopen after COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were eased, with the gas leak occurring during the process of re-starting operations, according to Bharath, the Visakhapatnam district official.
Reddy, the Andhra Pradesh minister, said workers at the plant had been conducting regular maintenance and gauging whether it was ready to return to full production. It was during this process that they found the leak coming from a storage tank, where the chemical had turned into a gas.
They immediately worked to neutralise the chemical and had shut down the plant within an hour, Reddy said. But Reddy said an alarm should have been raised when the gas leaked and asked why that didn't happen.
An LG Chem communications official said that the plant's alarm only detects if raw styrene is leaked in liquid form and "something in there reacted," which meant it "leaked in vapour form." Asked why it had turned into vapour, the official added, "That is something we need to investigate."
In a statement, LG Chem said it was taking measures to protect residents affected by the leak. "(We) are currently assessing local town residents' damage situation and are taking maximum necessary measures for the protection of residents and employees together with related organisations," said the statement. "The factory's gas leak is currently under control. Leaked gas can cause vomiting and dizziness from inhaling. (We) are seeking all measures so that related treatment can be done quickly."
"There is no specific antidote to reverse the effect of styrene. The treatment does remain mainly supportive. Individuals have to be removed from the exposed area," said Dr Randeep Guleria, Director at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Local police are investigating the cause of the leak and conducting house to house visits in adjoining areas.
Photos of the aftermath has drawn parallels online with the Bhopal disaster, a gas leak in the central Indian city of Bhopal in December 1984. Nearly half a million people were exposed to toxic fumes, nearly 4 000 people died in the immediate aftermath and around 10 000 subsequent deaths have been blamed on the leak, which is now considered one of the world's worst industrial disasters. This leak is likely not as lethal as the Bhopal disaster, said Reddy, the state minister.
The city's civic authority, the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC), warned residents to stay indoors during the response effort. "There is gas leakage identified at LG Polymers in Gopalpatnam. Requesting Citizens around these locations not to come out of houses for the sake of safety precautions," GVMC tweeted. "As precautionary measures, the colonies and villages around the industry may leave to safer locations. Please use wet cloth as mask to cover nose and mouth."
Now as efforts turn from evacuation and rescue to investigation, state officials are beginning to look into the cause of the leak. "Right now we are not taking any action but certainly the burden of proof lies with them (LG), to come forward and say what they have done," said Reddy. "We need to understand to what extent was this negligence or what it was. It will all come subsequently once we start ascertaining the situation on the ground."
He said that compensation of $131 000 per family will be given to those who have lost a loved one. LG will be asked to pay what it can and the state government will cover the rest, he added.
Source: CNN and AlJazeera