A gas tragedy that Vishakhapatnam will not forget for a century
LG Polymers is a chemical plant situated in the densely populated RR Venkatapuram locality in Vishakapatnam. Its owner, LG Chem of South Korea manufactures polystyrene monomer in this facility. Polystyrene monomer is an ingredient used in manufacture of fiberglass and rubber that go into making toys and appliances. The company had shut down its operations after a countrywide lockdown ordered in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. The company houses two giant siloss that store styrene monomer, a raw material for polystyrene. After relaxations to the lockdown were announced, the company was just preparing to restart the operations when the mishap happened.
According to eyewitness accounts, at around 3.30 AM on Thursday, polystyrene began leaking from one of the tanks. The toxic gas spread over a radius of about 3 KM impacting five villages in its vicinity. What followed was indeed very harrowing. There was all round panic, loud cries for help, frenzied running, and sick people collapsing on the ground, breathless and unable to walk. The victims suffered from dizziness, nausea, severe discomfort in the chest and similar problems. Those with some presence of mind, shut their doors and windows and remained indoors. There was total confusion in and around the area.
The accident proved fatal for a few elderly people and some youngsters. The death count stands at 11. The police arrived soon and called in the ambulances The police and a few volunteers did a commendable job in shifting the victims to hospitals. Their intervention softened the blow of the gas leak, and preempted a possible stampede.
The gas leak accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. Covid-19 had already enfeebled the local population economically and socially. The gas leak proved to be a double whammy. The chemical styrene is enlisted in the schedule of the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989. How and why the gas leaked is unknown now. A competent group of engineers and administrators could be formed to unravel the cause behind the disaster. The gas leak reminds one about the infamous Bhopal gas leak of 1984, whose deadly effects continue to hurt people’s lives even today. We need to get our act together in enforcing safety guidelines pertaining to the location, and safety protocol of such plants. Incidents like this sully India’s image as a good location to put up chemical plants. There are regulations aplenty, but when it comes to their enforcement, we are tragically lax. Many ascribe the gas leak to the lockdown, but this is a lame excuse. Plant operators know what precautions need to be taken before a prolonged shut down. Anyway, let’s await the report of the fact-finding team without jumping on to speculative conclusions. The problems like this must not recur anywhere in India. [Written by Sheethal B. Raju]