“The situation is tense,” said N. Surendra Anand, a fire officer in Visakhapatnam district, where the factory is located.
Toxic gas began leaking again from a LG Chem plant in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh early on Friday, an official said, triggering a wider evacuation after at least 11 people were killed following a leak at the site less than 24 hours earlier.
“The situation is tense,” N. Surendra Anand, a fire officer in Visakhapatnam district, where the factory is located, told Reuters, adding that people in a 5 kilometre (3.1 miles) radius of the factory were being moved out.
However, Srijana Gummalla, commissioner of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation, downplayed concerns surrounding vapour emanating from the plant, saying the gas coming out had been fluctuating through the day and had largely subsided.
“The evacuation being carried out is a part of safety precautions we are taking,” she told Reuters.
Spoke to officials of MHA and NDMA regarding the situation in Visakhapatnam, which is being monitored closely.
I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam.
– Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 7, 2020
Around midnight, police started urging people to move out of their houses and into waiting buses, said local resident Sheikh Salim, who lives about 2.5 kms from the plant.
Hours earlier, an LG Chem spokesman in Seoul and federal authorities in New Delhi had said the leak had been contained after hundreds of people were sickened by a toxic gas early on Thursday.
A 3-km radius had been evacuated on Thursday, S.N. Pradhan, director general of the National Disaster Response Force, told reporters in New Delhi.
The factory, operated by LG Polymers, a unit of South Korea’s biggest petrochemical maker LG Chem Ltd, was in the process of reopening after a weeks-long lockdown imposed by Indian authorities to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, local officials and the company said.
Horrific gas leak blast at least 11 people were killed and hundreds hospitalized in Visakhapatnam, #AndhraPradesh, #India. when styrene monomer gas leaked from a chemical plant belonging to LG Polymers. Factory making polystyrene products. Indian media report pic.twitter.com/LzNPYb55de
– NIN 24×7 (@NIN24x7News) May 7, 2020
The plant makes polystyrene products used in manufacturing electric fan blades, cups and cutlery and containers for cosmetic products.
Gas from styrene, a principal raw material at the plant, leaked during the early hours of the morning, authorities said.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy said in a televised address on Thursday that the gas leak occurred because
Footage on Indian television channels showed people, including women and children, slumped motionless in the streets after locals raised the alarm in the early hours.
“There was utter confusion and panic. People were unable to breathe, they were gasping for air. Those who were trying to escape collapsed on the roads — kids, women and all,” local resident Kumar Reddy, 24, told reporters.
Local police commissioner RK Meena, said that by Thursday afternoon 11 people had been confirmed dead.
B K Naik, district hospitals coordinator, said 1,000 had initially been hospitalised but by the afternoon around 600 remained in treatment, with none in a critical condition.
“This is a calamity,” Naik told AFP.
Pictures taken by AFP at the King George Hospital in the city early in the day had shown two or three patients on each bed, many of them children, and several unconscious.
– Prayers –
The incident had echoes of one of the worst industrial disasters in history when gas leaked from a pesticide plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal in 1984.
Around 3,500 people, mainly in shanties around the plant operated by Union Carbide, died in the days that followed and thousands more in the following years. People still suffer its after-effects now.
“I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter.
– Ahmed Waqar Bibi (@Ahmed_WB) May 7, 2020
The plant, operated by LG Polymers, a subsidiary of LG Chem, is on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam.
The city and the surrounding area are home to around five million people.
LG Chem said in a statement released in South Korea the “gas leak situation is now under control”.
In a later statement the company’s local branch expressed its “deepest condolences to the deceased and their families”.
It said its “top priority” was to work with authorities to get medical help to the victims, and that it was assisting with an investigation into the incident.
The plant had been left idle because of the coronavirus lockdown, according to Swaroop Rani, an assistant police commissioner in Visakhapatnam.
“(The gas) 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,” Rani told AFP.
She said local villagers raised the alarm about 3:30am, saying there was gas in the air, and police who rushed to the scene had to quickly retreat for fear of being poisoned.
“One could feel the gas in the air and it was not possible for any of us to stay there for more than a few minutes,” she said.
LG Chem confirmed the plant, which makes polystyrene products, was not operating because of the lockdown, but there were maintenance staff at the facility, a spokesman in Seoul told AFP.
– Rashes, sore eyes –
According to the Times of India, the dead included an eight-year-old girl, and 5,000 people had fallen sick.
Residents complained of breathing problems, rashes and sore eyes, it added.
Authorities advised people to wear wet clothes and masks, avoid eating uncovered food and consume bananas and milk to “neutralise the effect of the gas”.
According to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the gas was styrene, which is likely carcinogenic and combined with oxygen in the air forms the more lethal styrene dioxide.
The leak happened because the gas was not stored at the appropriate temperature, causing pressure to build up and breaking the valve, the CSE said.
The container was also “old and not properly maintained” and there was no monitoring mechanism installed to specifically detect styrene, it said.
The incident “shows us that there are ticking bombs out there as the lockdown ends and industries start resuming activities,” it added.
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