Visakhapatnam: At least 11 people, including a child, were killed and over 1,000 fallen sick after gas leaked at a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam. Up to 25 are critical, said the National Disaster Response Force, declaring the incident a chemical disaster.
The accident occurred some 14 km inland from the east coast city in Andhra Pradesh state. The plant is being operated by LG Polymers, a unit of South Korea’s biggest petrochemical maker, LG Chem Ltd.
Toxic styrene gas escaped from large tanks when an LG Polymers facility, shut for over 40 days due to the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, was restarted past midnight allegedly without precautions.
Srijana Gummalla, commissioner of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation, said gas from styrene, a principal raw material at the plant, leaked during the early hours of the Thursday, when families in the surrounding villages were asleep.
At daybreak, people were found lying motionless in lanes, ditches and near houses. At least three surrounding villages were evacuated and officials went house-to-house, breaking in to pull out unconscious victims.
In multiple videos, men, women and children were seen on the streets of Visakhapatnam, an industrial port city. At least hundred people, many in masks for COVID-19 precaution, were seen lifting the injured and bundling them into waiting ambulances.
Two people were so dizzy that they fell into a well and died. Two more died when their two-wheeler fell into a ditch. One woman fell off the second floor of her building. In one mobile video, a woman standing near a scooter suddenly collapsed on the pavement.
Residents near the plant reported burning eyes and skin and difficulty breathing, officials said. Prolonged exposure to styrene can affect the nerves and even cause kidney damage.
Over 1,000 people have been exposed to the gas, said SN Pradhan, the chief of the National Disaster Response Force. People within a 3 km radius of the chemical plant have been affected.
Police officer Swaroop Rani in Visakhapatnam was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying the gas leaked out of two 5,000-tonne tanks that had been unattended due to the lockdown.
"It was left there because of the lockdown. It led to a chemical reaction and heat was produced inside the tanks, and the gas leaked because of that," the officer told AFP.
In tweets and announcements, the municipal office warned people in the vicinity of the gas leak and urged everyone to stay indoors. People were also asked to wear wet masks or cover their face with wet cloth.
The plant makes polystyrene, a versatile plastic used in fiberglass, rubber and latex and for making toys and appliances among other things. Set up in 1961 as Hindustan Polymers, the company was taken over by South Korea's LG Chem and renamed LG Polymers India in 1997.
In a statement issued from Seoul, LG Chem said that the gas emitted in the leak can cause nausea and dizziness when inhaled, adding, it was seeking to ensure casualties received treatment quickly.
"The gas leak situation is now under control and we are exploring all ways to provide speedy treatment for those who suffer from inhaling the leaked gas," said LG Chem. "We are investigating the extent of damage and exact cause of the leak and deaths," it added in a statement.
The incident has been compared by many to the 1984 Bhopal Gas leak, one of the worst industrial disasters in history when gas leaked from a pesticide plant operated by Union Carbide Corporation’s India plant. Around 3,500 people died. Government statistics say at least one lakh people continue to suffer chronic illnesses.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy said in a televised address that the gas leak occurred because raw material was stored for a long period of time.
The state government will give 10 million rupees ($131,900) compensation to the families to those who died, and it will also form a panel to investigate the cause of the accident, said P.V. Ramesh, a senior aide to the chief minister.
South Korea’s top petrochemical maker by capacity, LG Chem acquired the plant in 1997 and established LG Polymers India Private Limited (LGPI), according to a company website.
“LG Polymers is a multi-national, reputed company, and it is sad that the incident has happened in their plant,” Chief Minister Reddy said in a televised media address.
Source: News Agencies
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