Indian police are investigating whether a deadly gas leak at a chemical plant near the city of Visakhapatnam amounts to culpable homicide.
At least 12 people died and another 350 people were hospitalized after toxic gas seeped from the South Korean-owned LG Polymers plant in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Thousands of people living near the chemical plant on the city’s outskirts have since been evacuated, some to state-run centers, as officials investigate what led to the fatal incident.
The gas has been identified as Styrene, a flammable liquid that is used to make a variety of industrial products, including polystyrene, fiberglass, rubber, and latex.
People won’t be allowed home until the air is clean, said local commissioner Srijana Gummalla on Friday.
Footage taken Thursday showed dramatic scenes of roads crowded with people fleeing the noxious gas, with many carrying the injured and unconscious on their shoulders.
Most of the dead were driving or standing on terraces outside their homes when they lost consciousness and fell where they stood, according to Mekapati Goutham Reddy, the minister for Industries, Commerce, and Information Technology in Andhra Pradesh. Three of the dead were children, he said.
Police have booked LG Polymers with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, according to Gummalla. Under Indian law, “booked” means that an official investigation has been launched to determine whether charges can be laid.
Under Indian law, the minimum penalty for the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder is 10 years in jail, while the maximum is a life sentence.
In a statement Thursday, LG Polymers said its top priority was working with the local government and authorities to ensure medical help is provided to all those affected. The company also said it was working with investigators to determine the exact cause of the incident.
“As a global company, we hold international environment and safety standards with the highest regard and will do our best to cooperate with the authorities to ensure there is no further recurrence,” the statement said.
The state’s chief minister has also set up an inquiry committee to investigate how the leak occurred, as the United Nations called for the leak to be “fully investigated.”
The deadly incident is reminiscent of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, when a gas leak at a pesticide plant killed nearly 4,000 people in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Nearly half a million people were exposed to toxic fumes, and around 10,000 subsequent deaths have been blamed on the leak, which is considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
Around 10,000 people were in the area exposed to the leaking gas on Thursday, which spread within a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) radius of the facility, according to local commissioner Gummalla.
Almost 1,000 people were directly exposed to the gas, said Kamal Kishore from the National Disaster Management Authority Thursday.
Although officials estimated that the gas spread around 2 kilometer (1.2 miles), they evacuated people within a 3 kilometer (1.8 mile) radius as a precaution. As of Friday, 1,500 families had been evacuated from the area, with most currently staying with relatives, Gummalla said. Around 1,200 villagers are in 17 state-run shelters that can house up to 10,000 people, she added.
Those in shelters are provided three meals a day and mats to sleep on.
Authorities have banned the use of water from the nearby reservoir until tests confirm that it has not been contaminated, Gummalla said, adding that it supplies about 5% of the water to the area.
In a statement to CNN, LG Chem, the South Korean owner, said it was taking measures to protect residents affected by the leak.
“(We) are currently assessing local town residents’ damage situation and are taking maximum necessary measures for the protection of residents and employees together with related organizations,” said the statement.
“The factory’s gas leak is currently under control. Leaked gas can cause vomiting and dizziness from inhaling. (We) are seeking all measures so that related treatment can be done quickly.”
Reddy, the Andhra Pradesh minister, said families who lost loved ones would be given $131,000 in compensation. LG will be asked to pay what it can and the state government will cover the rest, he added.
What went wrong
It’s not clear yet what went wrong.
The gas leak occurred as the plant was re-starting operations after coronavirus lockdown restrictions eased, according to Tej Bharath, a senior Vishakhapatnam district official.
Minister Reddy said workers had been conducting regular maintenance and gauging whether it was ready to return to production. It was during this process that they found the leak coming from a storage tank, where the chemical had turned into gas.
Reddy said an alarm should have been raised when the gas leaked.
A LG Chem communications official told CNN that the plant’s alarm only activates if it detects a leak of raw Styrene in liquid form, and “something in there reacted,” which meant it “leaked in vapor form.”
Asked why it had turned into vapor, the official added: “That is something we need to investigate.”
CNN’s Sugam Pokharel contributed from Atlanta. Sophie Jeong and Yoonjung Seo contributed from in Seoul, South Korea.