Victims of the gas leak are treated at King George Hospital. Photo: AFP

Engineers battled Friday to prevent more toxic gas escaping from a chemical plant on India’s east coast, a day after a pre-dawn leak killed 12 people and knocked locals unconscious in the street.

Although the death toll was lower than feared, the accident which left hundreds hospitalized outside the industrial port city of Visakhapatnam evoked memories of Bhopal where a gas leak killed around 3,500 people in 1984.

Late on Thursday the evacuation zone around the plant — owned by South Korea’s LG Chem — was widened with hundreds more people in 10 localities taken to safety as a precaution, police said.

“The situation is better now but we can’t say it is completely normal. The temperature in the tanks has been brought down by 120 degrees but we need to bring it down further by 25 degrees,” senior police officer Swaroop Rani told AFP.

South Korean parent company LG Chem said Friday that it was “taking necessary measures, such as adding water” to keep the tanks cool.

The company said in a statement on its website that the gas leak at the factory was in a “controlled state” and it would do its best to prevent future recurrences.

LG Chem added that it was investigating the exact cause of the incident and scope of damage with authorities, and will announce the findings “as we have more concrete information”.

On Friday afternoon a senior official in Visakhapatnam who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that police have also registered a case of manslaughter against the company management, accusing them of endangering public lives through negligence.

The national green tribunal, India’s environment watchdog, meanwhile ordered that the plant owner, LG Polymers, a unit of South Korea’s LG Chem, pay an initial fine of $6.2 million.

Pre-dawn

Horrifying footage on Indian television showed men, women and children slumped motionless in the streets after the gas leaked about 3.30am on Thursday.

“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.

Madam Moham, a doctor at the King George Hospital, said Friday that 52 children had been admitted with symptoms including nausea, dizziness, respiratory distress and throat irritation.  

“Almost all the children are now stable. We have only three cases that were serious,” he told AFP.

Prayers

“I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter.

The city and the surrounding area are home to around five million people.

The plant had been left idle because of the coronavirus lockdown, according to 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.

A spokesman for LG Chem in Seoul confirmed the plant, which makes polystyrene products, was not operating because of the lockdown, but there were maintenance staff at the facility.

‘Ticking bombs’

Overnight some evacuated families were forced to sleep on the pavements or in cars, local media reported.

Municipal authorities sprayed water on Friday morning to reduce 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 break the valve, the CSE said. 

The tank 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.

AFP

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