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. The May 7 gas leak at Visakhapatnam may not be comparable to the Bhopal gas disaster in terms of its magnitude, but the suffering of each individual victim is just as searing and it is also a reminder that same mistakes have been repeated over the months & years following the 1984 disaster...
A horrific chemical disaster is unfolding in Andhra Pradesh. Leakage of styrene gas from the LG Polymers plant near Visakhapatnam in the early hours of May 7 has claimed the lives of around 13 persons so far, including a child and two senior citizens. The death toll could rise in the coming days as many hundreds are sick after inhaling the toxic gas and being treated in hospitals. Scenes from the disaster are distressing: People could be seen falling unconscious on roads and many were breathless and nauseous. Although the LG plant is in a relatively less populated area, the impact is being felt in at least five surrounding villages.
“The situation is tense,” district fire officer N Surendra Anand informed and added that people in a 5km (3 mile) radius of the factory in the east coast city of Visakhapatnam were being moved out. 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 been stabilised, he told the Press. G Kishan Reddy, India’s deputy home minister told the Press that the National Disaster Response Force teams had 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. SN Pradhan, director general of the National Disaster Response Force, said the situation was 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. “We are looking into the exact damages, cause of the death and details of the incident,” LG Chem said in a statement. “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.”
Preliminary information indicates that human negligence may have contributed to the disaster. The plant was probably shut down in a hurry when the central government declared the nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice. According to police officials, storage tanks were lying unattended for weeks. This could have set off a chemical reaction that produced enormous heat, in turn causing the gas to leak. In fact, reports even claimed that the plant, which made 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 corona virus. “Over 60 per cent of the styrene vapour that leaked from a tank in LG Polymers near Visakhapatnam on May 7, killing at least 11 people, has polymerized so far and all chemical tanks in the plant are safe,” District Collector V Vinay Chand informed. In a report submitted to Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy during a video conference, the Collector said it might take 18-24 hours for the remaining vapours to polymerise and turn safe. “We have taken all measures to plug the leak completely and experts are closely monitoring the situation. The situation is now fully under control,” the Collector added. Chief Secretary Nilam Sawhney, who was camping in Visakhapatnam overseeing the relief measures, also said the situation was totally under control and all tanks in the LG plant were safe. Responding to this, the Chief Minister directed the officials to speak to the engineers and explore steps to utilize the raw material and chemicals in the plant fully. “Also, take steps to remove the chemicals from the plant to another place,” he said. Meanwhile, Chief Secretary Nilam Sawhney issued an order appointing a high-level to probe into the causes behind the gas leak and suggest measures to improve the protocol for industrial safety of similar types of plants. Special Chief Secretary (Environment and Forests) Neerabh Kumar Prasad will be its chairman and Pollution Control Board Secretary Vivek Yadav will be the member-convenor. Special CS (Industries), Visakhapatnam District Collector and city Police Commissioner will be the other members. “The Committee shall inquire into the reasons for the leakage and verify if the company adhered to all safety protocols. It will study if there are any long-term effects of the gas leakage on the surrounding villages,” the Chief Secretary said. “The Committee will also recommend proposed action to be taken against the unit by the government, in case of any negligence on the vapour leak incident in Visakhapatnam,” she added. The Committee has been asked to submit its report within a month. Authorities at LG Chemicals, the South Korean company that operates the facility at Visakhapatnam, say that maintenance of storage tanks was being done even during the lockdown. A probe must establish responsibility for the disaster. The gas leakage at Visakhapatnam should alert other factories to the importance of safety issues as they begin to re-open. With an economic crisis looming, factory owners will be looking to cut costs, but they must not cut corners on matters of safety.
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. The gas leak at Visakhapatnam may not be comparable to the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 in terms of its magnitude. Still, the suffering of each individual victim will be as searing. India must ensure that mistakes made in the months and years following the Bhopal disaster are not repeated. Accountability for the gas leak at the LG Polymers plant must be fixed and the guilty, whether Indian or foreigner, should be brought to justice. LG authorities in South Korea have said that the situation at their Visakhapatnam plant is “under control.” Indeed, the leaking of gas at the facility has been halted. However, its impact on the people who inhaled the gas has only begun to unfold. Styrene gas is known to have long-term implications for the central nervous system. Decades after the Bhopal disaster, its victims still give birth to babies with severe abnormalities. LG Chemicals must work with the Indian government and locals to ensure that long-term financial and medical support for the victims of the disaster is put in place.
NGT slaps interim penalty on LG, issues notices to Centre
The National Green Tribunal on May 8 slapped an interim penalty of Rs 50 crore on LG Polymers India and sought response from the Centre and others in the gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, saying “there appears to be a failure to comply with the said Rules and other statutory provisions”. A bench, headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, set up a 5-member Committee to probe May 7 gas leak incident in the chemical factory, in which 11 people were killed and 1,000 exposed, and submit a report before May 18. “Having regard to the prima facie material regarding the extent of damage to life, public health and environment, we direct LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd to forthwith deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crore, with the District Magistrate, Vishakhapatnam, which will abide by further orders of this tribunal. The amount is being fixed having regard to the financial worth of the company and the extent of the damage caused,” the bench said. The NGT issued notices to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, L G Polymers India, Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board, Vishakhapatnam District Magistrate and sought their response before May 18, the next date of hearing. The NGT said that Styrene gas is a hazardous chemical as defined under Rule 2(e) read with Entry 583 of Schedule I to the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989 and the Rules require on-site and off-site Emergency Plans to ensure prevention of damage. “There appears to be a failure to comply with the said Rules and other statutory provisions. Leakage of hazardous gas at such a scale adversely affecting public health and environment, clearly attracts the principle of 'Strict Liability' against the enterprise engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous industry,” the bench said, adding that such an entity is liable to restore the damage caused under the Environment Law, apart from other statutory liability. The matter was taken up suo-motu (on its own) by NGT on the basis of media reports to the effect that leakage of hazardous gas, Styrene, took place on May 7 from a chemical factory owned by the South Korean company LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd, R.R. Venkatpuram village, Pendurthy Mandal, Vishakhapatnam resulting in death of 11 persons.
Gas leak incidents that made headlines in the past
The gas leak from a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam in which at least 11 people were killed and 1,000 affected on Thursday is one in a long list of industrial accidents resulting from poisonous gases seeping into the air. The December 1984 Bhopal tragedy in which more than 3,000 persons were killed when methyl isocyanate leaked out is the world’s worst industrial disaster. Here are some other major gas leak mishaps:
Bhilai, Chhattisgarh: On June 12, 2014, there was a leak in a methane gas pipeline at the Bhilai plant of Steel Authority Of India Limited (SAIL). Six people, including two deputy general managers of the company, were killed and over 50 injured.
Nagaram, Andhra Pradesh: On June 27, 2014, a massive fire broke out following a blast in Gas Authority of India Limited’s plant, killing 29 people and injuring 10. The 18-inch underground pipeline, designed to supply gas to the Lanco power plant, was used for transporting wet gas having condensate/water. This corroded the pipe and led to a gas leak. An ignition triggered the explosion and the subsequent fire.
Mangaluru, Karnataka: On November 17, 2016, a gas leak in an HPCL running between Mangaluru-Hassan-Mysuru and Solur created panic in villages in the area. Several people were reportedly hospitalised after they inhaled the gas. The leak was spotted early on and was contained before much damage.
Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh: At least five people were killed and several injured in an explosion caused by an ammonia gas leak in the Katiyar cold storage in Kanpur on March 15, 2017. The explosion caused the roof of the building to collapse, trapping several people.
Delhi: About 450 girl students were hospitalised on May 6, 2017, after toxic fumes spread due to chemical leakage at a container depot near two schools in south-east Delhi's Tughlaqabad area. The chemical, 'chloro methyl pyridine' is an eye and respiratory irritant and causes redness and watering of eyes along with respiratory symptoms like sneezing, coughing or difficulty in breathing.
Por village, Gujarat: At least 20 people were hospitalised after the valve of a chlorine gas cylinder in a drinking water tank in Gujarat’s Por village developed a leak on April 13, 2017. Those exposed to the gas complained of eye and throat irritation.
Belur, Karnataka: At least 25 people were reportedly hospitalised after inhaling chlorine gas that leaked from a water treatment plant on the outskirts of Belur on May 16, 2017. Those who inhaled the gas showed symptoms like breathlessness, nausea and burning sensation in the throat.
Bhilai, Chhattisgarh: On October 9, 2018, 11 people died and 14 injured in a blast at the Bhilai Steel Plant. The blast took place in a pipeline near the coke oven section at the steel plant during a maintenance job.
Valsad, Gujarat: Over 40 workers of a glass manufacturing factory in Gujarat’s Valsad district were hospitalised following a leakage of chlorine gas in an adjacent chemical company on December 20, 2018.