More evacuated from around India chemical plant after gas leak

Confusion about whether LG Chem plant leaking more toxic gas, after 11 killed and hundreds made sick on Thursday.

Officials in India were on Friday morning evacuating more people from the area around a chemical factory that leaked toxic gas, after at least 11 people were killed in a leak from the site on Thursday.

There was confusion about whether the wider evacuation was the result of a renewed leak at the LG Chem plant in the eastern state of Andhra Pradesh or by concern that higher temperatures in the factory could trigger another leak. 

“The situation is tense,” district fire officer N Surendra Anand told Reuters news agency early on Friday, adding that people in a 5km (3 mile) radius of the factory in the east coast city of Visakhapatnam were being moved out.

Hours earlier, authorities had said that the situation was under control at the plant on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, after hundreds of people were sickened by the fumes.

The factory is operated by LG Polymers, a unit of South Korea’s biggest petrochemical maker, LG Chem.

The Seoul-based company said on Friday the expanded evacuation was 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 could rise,” the company said in a statement. “We are taking necessary measures, including putting water into the tank.”

Deadly gas leak

At least 11 people were killed and several hundred admitted to hospitals after Thursday’s leak.

A further 1,500 people were evacuated, mostly from a neighbouring village, some 14km (9 miles) inland from Visakhapatnam.

Footage on Indian television channels showed people, including women and children, lying motionless in the streets of Visakhapatnam, an industrial port city.

Srijana Gummalla, Commissioner of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation, said styrene leaked from the plant during the early hours of the morning, when families in the surrounding villages were asleep.

Gas emissions had fluctuated throughout the day and had largely stabilised, he told Reuters. The plant, which makes polystyrene products for use in fan blades, cosmetic containers and other plastic, was being reopened after India began to relax a nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

In a televised address on Thursday, Andhra Pradhesh’s chief minister, Jagan Mohan Reddy, said the leak occurred because the styrene had been stored for a long period of time.

“We are looking into the exact damages, cause of the death and details of the incident,” LG Chem said in a statement.

Andhra Pradesh map, India

‘People lying unconscious on roads’

Images posted on Twitter showed emergency service providers including police officers, firefighters and ambulances at the location. However, Al Jazeera could not verify the authenticity of the images.

G Kishan Reddy, India’s deputy home minister, told Indian news agency ANI that the National Disaster Response Force teams have been asked to provide immediate relief measures.

Areas within an approximately 3km (nearly 2 miles) radius of the plant were vulnerable, the municipal corporation said in a tweet.

In an interview with local news channel NDTV, SN Pradhan, director general of the National Disaster Response Force, said the situation is now under control at the site.

“The gas leakage has been stopped and the quantities should now be more manageable and we should be able to evacuate people to safety,” said Pradhan.

According to the Times of India newspaper, the incident led to panic among the residents, with many people seen lying unconscious on the roads.

Others were having breathing problems and complained of rashes on their bodies and sore eyes, it added.

India gas leak
Children affected by a gas leak lay on beds at the King George Hospital in Visakhapatnam, India [AFP]

Ambulances were shown arriving to collect the injured on the roadside to take them to hospitals in the area.

India was the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in history when gas leaked from a pesticide plant in the central city of Bhopal in December 1984.

About 3,500 people, mainly in shanties around the Union Carbide plant, died in the days that followed and thousands more in the following years.

Government statistics say that at least 100,000 people living near the Union Carbide plant are victims of chronic illnesses, suffering from ailments such as respiratory and kidney problems, hormonal imbalances, mental illness and several forms of cancer.

India gas leak
People stand near dead cows laying on the ground following a gas leak incident from an LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam [AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies