Visakhapatnam woke up to a tragic morning on 7 May, Thursday, when several people fell unconscious on the roads due to the chemical gas leak at LG Polymers.
The leak has still not been completely contained and efforts are on to neutralise styrene vapours at the plant, confirmed J Siva Sankar Reddy, Joint Chief Inspector of Factories, Visakhapatnam.
The gas leak tragedy has claimed the lives of 11 persons, including two kids and at least 250 have been hospitalised.
However, government and NDRF officials have confirmed that the situation is under control.
“Around 5,000 tonnes of polymer were kept in two tanks and was in the storage system. There was an automatic chain reaction because it is polymer. Due to that heat, vapours came out,” said Swaroop Rani, ACP West Visakhapatnam to The Quint.
Temperature Difference Caused Vapours
Officials of the Andhra Pradesh Department of Factories and LG Polymers are trying to neutralise the process to contain the formation of vapour.
The plant makes polystyrene, a versatile plastic used in fiber glass, rubber and latex and for making toys and appliances. It was set up in 1961 as Hindustan Polymers, and was was taken over by South Korea's LG Chem and renamed LG Polymers India in 1997.
The styrene material, a highly flammable liquid, is usually kept in a cold storage space that is completely refrigerated. The company had already taken 45 passes from the Collector for ensuring maintenance at the factory during this lockdown period, said an official.
The factory has been shut down since 22 March, when the nationwide lockdown was announced.
“Usually, when the material is used regularly there is no difference in temperature inside the tanks. For 40-43 days, the coolant material is available in the tanks. Sprinklers, placed one metre apart, help cool the tanks,” explained J Siva Sankar Reddy, Joint Chief Inspector of Factories, Visakhapatnam.
Since the material has not been used for a while, there has been a temperature difference at the top and bottom of the tank that led to the formation of vapours, he added.
“When the pressure built up, the breath valve failed. So these vapours have leaked from the tanks and were released in the air,” he said.
Neutralising Materials Being Brought in From Gujarat
For neutralising this leak, there are two materials necessary - N-dodecyl mercaptan (NDM) and 4-tert-Butylcatechol (TCB).
“As of now, the management is adding the materials they have in their storage. However, because the material inside the tank is now heavy, the concentration has still not been totally diluted. And that means, the vapours will continue to be formed,” he said.
Exposure to the gases causes nausea, dizziness, a burning sensation in the eyes, and breathing difficulties.
Since there are no factories in the state which has the materials, the factory management is procuring the materials from Gujarat which is being flown in on priority.
“Once this material is added to the tanks, it will neutralise the vapours as it will become solid, and there won’t be any more leak,” he clarified.
An NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) official retorted saying the leak has been contained and for the next 48 hours, no movement will be allowed in the vicinity.
When The Quint spoke to Srijana, Visakhapatnam Municipal Commissioner, she confirmed that the situation has been largely controlled and all the villages in the vicinity have been evacuated.
The company in its statement, claimed that the gas leak was under control.
“The gas leak from the factory is now under control. But the gas can cause vomiting and dizziness when inhaled. We are doing all we can to ensure medical treatment as quickly as possible.”LG Polymers
Criminal Proceedings Against Company if Found Negligent
Over 1,000 people who have been evacuated have been housed in shelter homes and the government is taking care of their food and other essential needs.
Andhra Pradesh Industries Minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said that they will initiate criminal proceedings against LG Polymers Pvt Ltd, if they are found negligent.
The minister told the local reporters that the management will need to prove all safety protocols were duly followed. The meeting with the management is scheduled for Friday.
“Anticipating corrosion of pipelines due to sea breeze, we asked them to resume the factory after thoroughly checking them. We don’t know if they conducted thorough inspection before beginning operations,” he said.