By Sudarshan Varadhan
CHENNAI (Reuters) – At least nine people were killed in Andhra Pradesh by a gas leak at a South Korean-owned factory making polystyrene products, with emergency services rushing over 300 people to hospitals and evacuating 1,500 from a nearby village, a police official said.
The accident occurred some 14 kilometres (9 miles) inland from the east coast city of Visakhapatnam, at a plant operated by LG Polymers, a unit of South Korea’s biggest petrochemical maker, LG Chem Ltd.
Srijana Gummalla, Commissioner, 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.
A spokesman for LG Chem in Seoul said the leak was discovered by a night shift maintenance worker and has been brought under control.
According to both the company spokesman and Gummalla, the plant was being reopened after India relaxed a nationwide lockdown that had been imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Swarupa Rani, an Assistant Commissioner of Police in Visakhapatnam told Reuters that at least nine people had died and between 300-400 were hospitalised. Another 1,500 people had been evacuated, mostly from a neighbouring village.
“All those who have been hospitalised are currently stable,” said Dr B. K. Naik, a local health official.
Areas within an approximately 3-kilometre (nearly 2-mile)radius of the plant were vulnerable, the municipal corporation said in a tweet. Cross-referencing maps of the affected area, there is at least one coronavirus containment zone in the neighbourhood.
LISTLESS AND UNCONSCIOUS
Yashwanth Saikumar Ambati, 23, who lives about 300 metres away from the plant, said he woke up around 4.30 a.m. on Thursday because of a strong smell.
“I went back to sleep and I woke up around 6 because the smell got stronger. My eyes were itchy, and I was feeling drowsy, light-headed and slightly breathless,” he told Reuters.
Others in his neighbourhood also complained of eye irritation, Ambati said, while some said they had a stomach ache. He then called a friend living a few kilometres away and quickly moved there.
Local revenue official B. V. Rani said she received a call at around 4 a.m. from a police officer near the facility, who sounded panicky. “He asked me to come to the spot immediately,” Rani told Reuters.
When Rani went there, she saw that people had collapsed unconscious in the village adjoining the 60-acre site of the plant.
“I personally helped more than 15 people get to an ambulance who had tried to run away from the village but dropped down within a few metres,” she said.
Video from Reuters partner ANI shot later on Thursday showed emergency workers in the area rushing to help victims, some of whom appeared to be listless and disoriented.
A number of victims lay unconscious on the streetside, as some volunteers fanned them and others rushed to carry them into ambulances.
At least one child was among the dead, a policeman at the site told ANI, and video showed at least two other children being lifted into an ambulance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he had spoken to officials from the federal home ministry and the National Disaster Management Authority, who were monitoring the crisis.
“I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” Modi said in a tweet.
Thursday’s incident evoked memories of a gas leak at an factory of U.S. chemical firm Union Carbide that killed thousands in the city of Bhopal in 1984.
TOP PETROCHEMICAL MAKER
LG Chem’s share priced closed nearly 2% weaker on Thursday.
South Korea’s top petrochemical maker by capacity, LG Chem acquired the plant in 1997 and established LG Polymers India Private Limited (LGPI), according to a company website.
The LG Polymers plant makes polystyrene products which are used in manufacturing electric fan blades, cups and cutlery and containers for cosmetic products such as make up.
The raw material, styrene, is highly flammable and releases a poisonous gas when burnt.
In a statement, LG Chem said that the gas emitted in the leak can cause nausea and dizziness when inhaled, adding that it was seeking to ensure casualties received treatment quickly.
LG Chem operates two naphtha crackers in South Korea, with a total ethylene output capacity of 2.5 million tonnes each year.
It also makes electric vehicle batteries and General Motors and Volkswagen are among its customers.
(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Derek Francis and Euan Rocha; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Anil D’Silva & Simon Cameron-Moore)