The state’s industries minister Mekapati Goutham Reddy said it was the company’s responsibility to prove there had been no negligence on its part.
“The cap of the storage tank is learnt to have come off and by the time the engineers sealed the gap and neutralised the liquid, the damage was done,” he said, according to Hindustan Times.
“A gas leak happened that should not have. So, the company is at fault, no matter what. The company senior management has not yet given an explanation to us. Middle men are in touch. We asked industries to prepare themselves to operate ― so they were on with basic staff. The company has to present an explanation to the government. Stringent action will be taken against them post inquiry,” Reddy told News18.
Conflicting comments from ministers and the police have led to questions over whether the leak was an accident or caused by the company’s negligence.
LG Polymers is a subsidiary of South Korean company LG Chem, which operates the plant and is part of the LG Corp. conglomerate.
A company spokesperson told reporters in Visakhapatnam that “the company had been shut for 40 days due to the lockdown. During this time, it was not possible to maintain the temperature in the storage tanks”.
The chemical styrene is stored in these tanks in liquid form and would turn to gas if not stored at a temperature below 20 degree celsius.
15 people, including a manager, were in charge of maintaining the temperature.
The company said maintenance staff were at the facility when the leak took place. “While it’s true that the factory wasn’t operating as it was under lockdown, there were maintenance workers inside,” an LG Chem spokesman told AFP in Seoul. The leak was discovered by a night shift maintenance worker, he said.
Andhra CM Jagan Reddy raised concerns that an alarm had not gone off when the leak took place.
According to both the company spokesman and Visakhapatnam Corporation Commissioner Srijana Gummalla, the plant was being reopened after lockdown rules were relaxed on Monday.
Assistant police commissioner Swaroop Rani also seemed to link the leak to the plant being idle during lockdown.
″(The gas) was left there because of the lockdown. It led to a chemical reaction and heat was produced inside the tanks, and the gas leaked because of that,” Rani told AFP.
She said local villagers raised the alarm at around 3:30 am, saying there was gas in the air, and police who rushed to the scene had to quickly retreat for fear of being poisoned.
“One could feel the gas in the air and it was not possible for any of us to stay there for more than a few minutes,” she said.
But Andhra Pradesh DGP Damodar Goutam Sawan called the leak an “accident”.
“They were strictly following all protocols. Investigation is underway. Forensic teams are also being sent to the spot,” he told ANI.
He also said styrene gas “is not a poisonous or a lethal gas”.
“Only if one inhales high doses of it, it is serious. Otherwise, it leads to irritation, losing coherence and breathlessness,” he said.
AIIMS director called the gas “toxic” at a central government briefing on the situation and said that, if inhaled in high doses, it could cause central nervous system depression, coma and irregular heart beat.
LG Chem official Song Chun-seob told AP that it was looking into the cause of the leak of styrene monomer gas but wouldn’t know exactly what went wrong until Indian authorities complete their investigation.
South Korean Ambassador to India Shin Bong-kil on LG said he was “shocked and saddened” by gas leak and called it a “highly unfortunate incident”. “Our deepest condolences go out to those affected by this tragic event. We pray for the speedy recovery of those who have been taken ill,” he said.
(With inputs from Nikhila Henry)