By Robin Gomes
At least 11 people were killed and around 800 were hospitalised after toxic gas leaked Thursday morning at a plant making polystyrene products in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
The styrene monomer gas leak at the South Korean-owned LG Chem plant in the port city of Visakhapatnam forced authorities to evacuate people in nearby villages as hundreds, including stray animals, began to faint on the roadside after breathing the poison.
Archbishop of Visakhapatnam
“The gas has spread within a radius of 3 km and has affected people, animals, birds and trees,” noted Archbishop Prakash Mallavarapu of Visakhapatnam.
He said that the parish priest of St. Thomas Church near the accident site, and the nuns in the next-door convent, were unharmed.
“During the night the priests welcomed some families in the compound of the parish, trying to give them some care and relief," he told AsiaNews.
People near the chemical plant complained of eye irritation, breathlessness, nausea and rashes on their bodies.
Authorities on Friday doubled the evacuation area around the chemical plant to a 5-kilometre radius amid chaos and fear of another leak due to rising temperatures at the plant.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, has expressed "deep shock" at the tragedy.
The Cardinal who is President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India said in a statement that Caritas India, the bishops’ social service arm, was in touch with local authorities to see how the Church could help.
In rushing the injured to hospital and helping trapped people out of the accident sites, authorities and volunteers ignored social distancing norms.
Cardinal Gracias noted that the incident has "put added pressure on those already stressed" in their efforts to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Our prayers are with them for strength and courage," the Cardinal added.
Memories of Bhopal tragedy
Andhra Pradesh High Court has issued notices to the state and federal governments asking how such a plant was allowed to operate amid a densely populated area.
The police have booked the management of the Korean firm on several counts of negligence and culpable homicide.
The tragedy occurred as the LG chemical plant was preparing to reopen after it was shut during India’s Covid-19 lockdown.
Sajan K George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, described the accident as a "huge tragedy".
"It is criminal negligence on the part of the company, which left such an unstable chemical product without custody,” under lockdown, he told AsiaNews.
“Permission was given to open this facility in the middle of a heavily populated city, with highly questionable security measures.”
The Visakhapatnam tragedy, he noted, brought back chilling memories of the December 1984 gas tragedy in Bhopal. Regarded as the world's worst industrial disaster, the methyl isocyanate gas leak from the US-owned Union Carbide factory killed over 2,500 people overnight and thousands more in the following months and years.
After more than 35 years, people still suffer the consequences and many newborns have disabilities as the effect of that leak.