Residents in eastern India woke up in the middle of the night surrounded by a cloud of styrene vapor. Many couldn’t breathe.
NEW DELHI — D.V.S.S. Ramana, who lives about a mile from an industrial plant in eastern India, said he woke up early Thursday morning enveloped in a strange white mist.
He started coughing. His eyes burned. He flipped on his TV to learn that a cloud of toxic vapor had just escaped from a nearby plastics factory owned by the South Korean industrial giant LG Corp. in the Indian coastal city of Visakhapatnam.
Mr. Ramana jerked his wife and two children awake. As he rushed outside, he heard sirens blaring and saw people staggering into the street. Some collapsed right in front of him.
“We could smell the gas in our mouths,” Mr. Ramana said, speaking by telephone as he was driving off, trying to get his family as far away as possible. “It was terrifying.”
The leak, which officials said came from a tank of styrene, a liquid material used in making plastics, sent out a cloud of toxic vapor that drifted over the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, killing at least 11 people and sickening hundreds.
Dozens of men and women were left lying unconscious in the street. Mothers ran to hospitals with limp children in their arms. Police officers moved house to house to evacuate hundreds of people. Sometimes they had to break down doors because the residents inside were unconscious.
Indian officials said the accident happened around 2:30 a.m., as the chemical plant was restarting operations after a six-week hiatus because of India’s strict coronavirus lockdown. The tanks of styrene had been left unattended, Indian officials said, and in the course of the factory resuming operations, a major leak erupted.
“It seems unskilled labor mishandled the maintenance work and because of that, the gas leaked,” said Srijana Gummalla, one of the top government officials in Visakhapatnam.
The plant had been closed since India’s coronavirus lockdown began in late March, but this week the lockdown was eased and many businesses, including heavy industries, have begun to reopen.
A former manager of LG Polymers, the Indian subsidiary of LG Chemical, said in an interview that liquid styrene required careful attention, and that because of the lockdown, workers were not going to the factory. He said that may have played a role in the leak.
Indian news media broadcast clips of victims, including villagers lying face down on a muddy road, their mobile phones spilled out next to them. In one shot, a woman frantically pounds the chest of another woman who had just collapsed. In another, a stray dog struggles to stand and then crumples to the floor.
Though this accident was not close to the scale of the 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, which left nearly 4,000 dead and a half million poisoned, it immediately drew comparisons, especially among Bhopal survivors.
“When I saw the images on television of people struggling to breathe and laying on the roadside,” said Rashida Bi, a Bhopal survivor, “something hit me deep inside as if I was laying motionless, among them, begging to save my life and struggling to breath.”
“At least they had people ready to take them to hospitals,” she added. “We had none. All of us were looking at each other, waiting for death to come.”
While the Bhopal disaster brought to the fore India’s dangerous industrial practices, forcing the government to improve some safety standards, Bhopal survivors and many others said India still hasn’t learned the right lessons.
For example, several union officials said that the warning sirens at the Visakhapatnam factory failed to go off and that more people had died as a result.
Mantri Rajsekhar, the local leader of a union representing LG Polymers, accused the company of ignoring safety issues raised by the group, including poor maintenance of equipment.
LG Chemical said in a statement that it was investigating how the leak happened and “the cause of deaths.”
“We are working together with the local authorities to assess the damage caused to the local people and to take whatever it takes to protect them and our workers,” the statement said. “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.”
Medical officials in Visakhapatnam said hundreds of patients ended up exposed to the styrene vapor, which can immobilize a person within minutes of inhalation and be deadly at high concentrations. Doctors said that many patients were vomiting and experiencing “neurological deficiencies.” At least a dozen remained in critical condition.
India’s National Disaster Response Force sent men in camouflaged hazmat suits with oxygen tanks on their backs into the factory. By Thursday afternoon, there was “hardly any leakage,” said S.N. Pradhan, the disaster force’s director.
“We will be there until that leakage is totally plugged,” he said.
South Korea’s LG Chemical took over the factory from a local Indian company in the late 1990s. It employs several hundred people, the former manager said, and makes polystyrene (a hard plastic used for appliances, toys, and electronics) and expandable polystyrene (a foam material used as an insulator for buildings and packaging for items.)
The factory sits at the edge of Visakhapatnam, surrounded by train tracks, small villages, dirt roads, and neem and ficus trees. It is an old port city now home to many industrial plants, and is one of the biggest cities in southeastern India, in Andhra Pradesh State.
The accident happened when most people in the area were sleeping. Indian officials said the cloud of toxic vapor spread over an area with a three kilometer radius, exposing more than 1,000 people.
At least two children died, authorities said, and several other people perished while trying to run away. Officials said that one villager who was temporarily blinded by the vapor fell into a well.
Mr. Ramana, who works as a store manager at an ironware factory, said he plans to stay at a relative’s place a couple of hours drive from Visakhapatnam.
By Thursday afternoon, speaking from further along the highway, far from Visakhapatnam, he sounded much more relieved.
“I will drop my family at a relative’s where we will be staying for a couple of days and then go to my workplace,” he said. “Life must go on.
Jeffrey Gettleman, Kai Schultz and Sameer Yasir reported from New Delhi, and Suhasini Raj from Lucknow, India. Reporting was contributed by Hari Kumar from New Delhi; S.M. Bilal from Hyderabad, India; Choe Sang-hun from Seoul; and Maria Abi-Habib from Los Angeles.
The new gas leak in India brings back horrible memories of Bhopal – this time the villain is LG (“Life is Good”) the huge South Korean conglomerate that makes electronics and chemicals- they were re-starting their factory (which had been shut down for the virus) and failed to provide adequate safety measures- many are dead and hundreds more were injured from exposure to toxic gases- The Asian Network for Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims has just released a statement on this tragedy:
to add your support for the victims and to demand justice, contact:
ANROEV Secretariat, C/O- Center for Public Health and Environmental Development (CEPHED) at firstname.lastname@example.org
In January,2020, LG announced record sales of $53 billion USD and profits of more than $2 billion USD:
SEOUL, Jan. 30, 2020 — LG Electronics Inc. (LG) today announced another record breaking sales year with revenues of KRW 62.3 trillion (USD 53.0 billion) in 2019, reflecting strong demand for premium home appliances such as LG SIGNATURE and high-growth, category-creating products. Full-year operating profits of KRW 2.44 trillion (USD 2.07 billion) were strong again in 2019 although 10 percent lower than 2018 due to increased investments in marketing and future technologies
For the original article, please visit https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/09/silicon-valley-full-superfund-sites/598531/