Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 July 2020

India gas leak: evacuation zone widened around Visakhapatnam plant

Residents shifted amid confusion over whether chemicals stored at factory posed a fresh risk

Indian officials were evacuating more people on Friday from the area around a chemical plant in the south of the country that leaked toxic gas, killing at least 11 people and sickening hundreds more.

There was confusion about whether the wider evacuation orders were sparked by a renewed leak at the LG Chem factory in Andhra Pradesh, or by the fear that rising temperatures at the plant could lead to another leak.

"The situation is tense," N Surendra Anand, a fire officer in Visakhapatnam district, told Reuters, adding that people within a 5-kilometre radius were being moved out because of renewed emissions from the plant.

The site of the LG Polymer plant on the outskirts of the city of Visakhapatnam, India where a gas leak killed at least 11 people on May 7, 2020. Maxar Technologies via Reuters
The site of the LG Polymer plant on the outskirts of the city of Visakhapatnam, India where a gas leak killed at least 11 people on May 7, 2020. Maxar Technologies via Reuters

However, Seoul-based LG Chem said the decision to extend the evacuation area from 3.5km was taken as a precaution.

"There was not a second leak and LG Chem has asked the police to evacuate residents as a precautionary measure as there are concerns that tank temperatures would rise," South Korea's biggest petrochemical maker said in a statement. "We are taking necessary measures, including putting water into the tank."

Srijana Gummalla, commissioner of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation, said gas emissions had been fluctuating through the day and had largely subsided.

Police began urging people to move out of their houses and into waiting buses at around midnight, said Sheikh Salim, who lives about 2.5km from the plant.

District Collector Vinay Chand said authorities had flown in chemicals from a neighbouring state to neutralise the gas completely before allowing people to return to their homes.

The initial evacuations on Thursday affected about 3,000 people. Authorities did not immediately say how many people were affected by the newer evacuations.

Mr Chand said 316 people were being treated in hospitals and were in stable condition.

State police chief Damodar Gautam Sawang said 800 people had been released after medical treatment.

LG Chem and federal authorities in New Delhi said on Thursday that the leak at the plant, which makes polystyrene products used in manufacturing electric fan blades, cups and cutlery and containers for cosmetic products, had been contained.

Gas from styrene, a principal raw material at the plant, leaked during the early hours of Thursday, authorities said.

A neurotoxin, styrene gas can immobilise a person within minutes of inhalation and be deadly at high concentrations.

Videos and photos from the area on Thursday showed dozens of people lying unconscious in the streets, arms open wide with white froth trailing from their mouths. People fled on foot, on motorbikes and in open trucks as police officers, some wearing gas masks, rushed to get people out of their homes.

The leak occurred as the factory, operated by LG Polymers, a unit of LG Chem, 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.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy said in a televised address on Thursday that the leak occurred because the styrene had been stored for a long period of time.

“Our initial information is that workers were checking a gas storage tank when it started leaking,” the state's industries minister M Goutham Reddy said Thursday.

People sit on a road after evacuating their homes following a gas leak in Visakhapatnam, India. Reuters
People sit on a road after evacuating their homes following a gas leak in Visakhapatnam, India. Reuters

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that its ambassador to India had expressed regrets and condolences over the gas leak. A ministry statement said the South Korean government is closely monitoring efforts to handle the aftermath.

LG Chem began operating the plant in Vishakhapatnam in 1997 and its Indian operation is one of the leading manufacturers of polystyrene and expandable polystyrene in the country. The Visakhapatnam plant has about 300 workers.

Updated: May 8, 2020 10:31 AM

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