A major gas leak from a chemical plant in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam occured early on Thursday and quickly spread to villages in a five-kilometre radius, killing at least 11 people and affecting thousands. Among the dead were two children aged 6 and 9 years. A large number of domestic animals, pets and plants have also been impacted.
Many collapsed to the ground as they tried to escape the toxic vapours. Hours after the leak, scores of people could be seen lying unconscious on sidewalks, near ditches and on the road, raising fears of a major industrial disaster.
The death toll from the incident could go up with at least 20 people on ventilator support. 193 including 44 children are undergoing treatment at Visakhapatnam’s King George Hospital. 66 patients are admitted in private hospitals. 57 people are being treated at Vizag Community Health Centre.
How did the events unfold?
The styrene gas leaked around 2.30 am on Thursday (May 7) from a chemical factory called LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd in RR Venkatapuram village near Visakhapatnam.
Here’s a timeline of what happened shortly after the leak, according to police:
3.25 am: Arun Kumar (Citizen) called Dial 100 and informed about gas leakage to VSKP City Police Control Room. Immediately, control room staff alerted Gopalapatanam Station Staff.
3:26 am: Sub Inspector Satyanarayana with four PCs (PC 4002, 4016, 4017, 4018) left for RR Venkatapuram village by the Rakshak vehicle.
3.35 am: Sub Inspector Satyanarayana along with his staff reached RR Venkatapuram and realised the criticality of the situation and relayed the information to Marripalem Fire Station and also to ambulance.
Meanwhile, CI of Kancharapalem (night In-charge), RI Bhagavan, Ganesh SI (Gajuwaka PS) rushed to the scene.
3:40 am: Police started the evacuation process, shifting affected people to the safe zone. Proactively, all 4,500 families living in the vicinity were evacuated. Police barged into houses and woke up sleeping families and shifted them.
City Control alerted all Rakshaks and highway patrolling vehicles. Meanwhile, 2 QRT teams were deployed.
3:45 am: Fire department staff reached the scene and augmented efforts of police with fire fighting vehicle and alerted the people of the village.
12 Rakshaks, six 108 vehicles, four highway patrolling vehicles reached the spot between 3.45 am and 4 am and evacuated the families from RR Venkatapuram, R Venkatadri Nagar, SC/BC Colony (4500 families).
4:30 am: CP Vizag and DCP Zone 2 personally participated in the evacuation operation and went from house to house to ensure that citizens are moved to safety. DCP Zone 2 due to inhalation of the gas suffered symptoms of poisoning.
In this entire operation, RI T Bhagwan, CI Ramanniah, SI Satyanarayana and PC Nagaraju have been hospitalized. 20 police personnel are suffering from mild symptoms.
After 7.00 am, NDRF and SDRF teams reached the location and participated in rescue operations.
What is styrene? How toxic is it?
Styrene is an organic compound used in the manufacture of polymers/plastic/resins. It is manufactured in petrochemical refineries. It is a likely carcinogenic substance. It can react with oxygen in the air to mutate into styrene dioxide which is more lethal. According to India’s Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, styrene is classified as a ‘hazardous and toxic chemical’.
Acute (short-term) exposure to styrene in humans results in mucous membrane and eye irritation and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic (long-term) exposure results in impacts on the central nervous system (CNS), leading to headaches, fatigue, weakness, depression, CSN dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy. If the amount of styrene goes beyond 800 ppm, then the person exposed to it can go into a coma.
READ MORE | Vizag killer: What is styrene gas that leaked in Andhra Pradesh?
The duration of the exposure and its relative concentration will determine toxicity. Currently, it is known that roughly 3 tonnes of the gas leaked from its storage tank and the feeding line.
Why did the disaster take place? What was the cause?
Styrene monomer was being used at the manufacturing plant to produce expandable plastics. The storage requirement of styrene monomer said that it should be stored strictly at a temperature below 17oC.
There was a temporary partial shutdown of the plant due to Covid-19 lockdown, excluding maintenance activities in the plant, which were being carried out as per a pre-determined schedule. The problem began as a result of styrene gas not being stored at the appropriate temperature. This caused pressure to build up in the storage chamber and led the valve to break, resulting in the gas leakage.
Also, the container that was being used to store styrene gas was old and not properly maintained. The gas was stored in two tanks with a total capacity of 5 metric tonnes. This non-maintenance of the facility resulted in the leakage of 3 tonnes of styrene into the surrounding areas.
Another issue was the defunct VOC detection system at the plant; there is no monitoring mechanism that was installed to specifically detect styrene. The facility is spread over 600 acres of land including the nearby residential areas (according to terms of reference submitted by the company in 2018, it is spread over 231 acres). The impact zone has been in the range of 2-3 km. There is a village nearby and the facility is surrounded by residential areas, resulting in a higher rate of exposure.
The most important immediate treatment is to give oxygen to the affected people. The people in the zone also need to be evacuated as long-term exposure can be detrimental to their health.
In 2018, the factory had submitted a Rs 168 crore proposal to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to expand its production capacity by another 250 tonnes per day (tpd) — from the current 415 tpd. This permission, as we understand it, has been recently granted.
What are the guidelines for storing chemicals at plants?
Post-Bhopal gas tragedy, clear guidelines have been issued for storage of hazardous chemicals at plants. After the Bhopal disaster, many legislations were enacted beginning with the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991.
According to The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989, styrene is classified as a ‘hazardous and toxic chemical’.
Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 rules say: “Set discharge and product standards – source standards for restricting pollution; product standards for manufactured goods and ambient air and water standards – for regulating quality of life and environmental protection.”
Hazardous Waste (management, handling and trans-boundary movement) Rules, 1989 says, “Industry required to identify major accident hazards, take preventive measures and submit a report to the designated authorities.”
Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989: “Importer must furnish complete product safety information to the competent authority and must transport imported chemicals in accordance with the amended rules.”
Chemical Accidents (Emergency, Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996: “Centre is required to constitute a central crisis group for management of chemical accidents; set up quick response mechanism termed as the crisis alert system. Each state is required to set up a crisis group and report on its work.”
Factories Amendment Act, 1987: “Provision to regulate siting of hazardous units; safety of workers and nearby residents and mandates for on-site emergency plans and disaster control measures.”
Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991: “Imposes a no-fault liability on the owner of hazardous substance and requires the owner to compensate victims of accident irrespective of any neglect or default. For this, the owner is required to take out an insurance policy covering potential liability from any accident.”
Did the company not follow the stipulated rules for storage and handling of hazardous chemicals?
There are clear rules on hazardous chemical storage under the EPA, 1986. The unit in question is an ISO-certified facility, which means it has a protocol for everything.
However, what seems to be the case is that the plant management, in its haste to re-start the plant, ignored the protocol of doing maintenance of the plant before resuming operations. This, combined with the lack of proper storage of the gas – not maintained at the temperature required – and faulty fixtures could have resulted in the accident.
Vizag could be just a tip of the iceberg
This shows us that there are ticking bombs out there as the lockdown ends and industries start resuming activities. Therefore, an immediate directive must go to all units to ensure safety while resuming operations — in case the lockdown continues, these safety precautions must not be negated.
(With inputs from Ashish Pandey)