Vizag Gas Leak: Professors, activists shocked at the eerie similarities with Bhopal Gas tragedy  

The gas leak at LG Polymers in Visakhapatnam has left 11 dead and hundreds have landed in the hospital. Why did it happen and what is in store? 
The gas leak
The gas leak

As if the COVID-19 crisis is not devastating enough to handle, the country woke up to yet another horrifying news about a gas leak in Visakhapatnam that has left eleven people dead and hundreds of others battling for their lives in hospitals. It has been reported that residents in a 3-5 kilometre radius have been evacuated, the videos and pictures from the site have drawn comparisons to the Bhopal Gas tragedy from 36 years ago.

Dr ESA Sarma, a 1965-batch IAS officer and former Energy Secretary from Visakhapatnam who has been actively involved in environmental issues has written to the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagmohan Reddy regarding the gas leak. In his letter, Sarma listed out the reasons why the company must be taken to task and how action should have been taken much earlier. 

According to Samra, LG Polymer is a South Korean company 'that was constantly pampered by successive governments'. "It stands on government ceiling surplus land valuing hundreds of crores of rupees and the company had dragged the government into litigation, when the government tried to take back the land. Despite this, how did Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) grant Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) around the beginning of 2019 for the unit's expansion? APPCB did not apparently take clearance either from the State government or from the Union Ministry of Environment," Sarma said. 

He questions how the unit being a highly polluting one was allowed to be located so close to residential areas and how the APPCB had allowed it to expand its operations. He also claimed in his letter that this wasn't the first time an industrial accident had taken place in the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. "Around 30 to 40 accidents took place in the past resulting in several workers and civilians losing their lives, with no promoter prosecuted and no officer of the State government punished. It implies collusion between the officers and the promoters of the polluting industries," the former bureaucrat said. 

He also criticised the government for granting a 'No Objection Certificate' to LG Polymers during the first phase of the lockdown, "When the first phase of the recent lockdown ended a No Objection Certificate (NOC) was apparently granted to LG Polymers, ostensibly on the ground that it was an "essential" industry. By no stretch of imagination, a plastics manufacturing unit like this can be called "essential". Someone senior in the government should be held responsible for this lapse," he demanded.

We reached out to a senior academician in the field of Chemistry at a prominent institute in the country to find out what the impact of the gas contains and what more effects it could potentially have. The professor said that there was a need to immediately investigate the components of the gas - so far we are being told that the gas is Styrene - an inflammable gas that is carcinogenic. "Styrene is used in the production of polystyrene which is used for various products. Even the white foam that we use for packaging is made with Styrene, which is then used for things like paper plates, glasses. There is a lot of demand for the material," the professor said. 

"Styrene is a liquid compound which under very high pressure turns gaseous but I'm hearing that the gas spread to a radius of 3-5 kilometres. That is not really possible with Styrene, there has to be some other material that was also used along with the Styrene, only then could it have had the capacity to spread so far," he believes. He also said that Styrene has a sweet, pleasant smell - but that it is mutagenic. "If you take COVID-19 for example, now there are some 30 different forms of COVID because it keeps mutating. So that way Styrene is also mutagenic, "he explained. 

While it causes burning of eyes, itchy skin and other such reactions, the professor reiterated that there could be another material in the gas that the company is not revealing. "Styrene is also used to make rubber. The polymer of rubber is called uterine, which is also used to make tyres and other such similar materials. Since Styrene is a liquid compound and has a very high boiling point, it is strange that it could have the capacity to move so fast in the air. I do feel like the company is hiding something and they should come out with the facts because that is what will help in the treatment of patients too and we must do it fast," he explained.

SP Udayakumar, anti-nuclear activist and convener of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy, who is at the helm of protest against the Kudankulam Project criticised the choice of location of the LG Polymer factory. "I don't understand how the factory could be located so close to a residential area or a densely populated area. It was the same with the Bhopal tragedy, it was situated in the heart of the city, it was just shocking," he said. 

Reflecting on the growing body count, he said, "The people were just caught off-guard. Despite witnessing something as massive as the Bhopal Gar Tragedy and even Chernobyl, we continue to not educate the population on basic disaster management skills. They don't know that they have to wear a wet mask. In the videos this morning, people are not even covering their mouths," he said. Pointing out that the factory in Visakhapatnam was over 60 years old, he questioned why factories that were so old were allowed to function, "These are machines after all, they rust and they rot. How can they continue to be maintained? Can we allow a factory to run forever? I wonder if periodic audits were done or if the PCB kept track," the activist pondered. 

Besides the people who have been affected, Udayakumar also pointed out how several animals have also been affected and how they might be confused by everything that has been happening. "We can't really predict the extent of damage right away. People are saying 11 have died, but we don't know much it has spread, how much people have inhaled, how it will affect the gene-makeup in a person. If it was deposited in the clouds, the water bodies? We cannot quantify the damage right now," he said. 

He also accused factories and companies of having a carefree attitude towards disaster management and being secretive about their work, "When a factory is set up, they have to educate people about what they're producing. They have to tell them that in case there's a leak what they can do and how it'll affect them. The precautions that they should take. They have to prepare the people for a worst case scenario. The present disaster management culture and lacklustre attitude must change," he added.

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