[Fact check] Investigation into LG Chem gas leak in India reveals negligence and lack of safety protocols

Posted on : 2020-08-02 12:43 KST Modified on : 2020-08-02 12:43 KST
No veteran staff on site to deal with emergencies; employees didn’t even sound alarm at time of accident
A tank of styrene gas at an LG Chem factory in Visakhapatnam, India; the right image showing at 3:15 am on May 7. (Indian investigation report)
A tank of styrene gas at an LG Chem factory in Visakhapatnam, India; the right image showing at 3:15 am on May 7. (Indian investigation report)

At 3 am on May 7, a white cloud began leaking out of a chemical tank in Visakhapatnam, a coastal city in the eastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The leak continued for dozens of minutes, becoming denser and traveling farther. At one point, the gas cloud was so thick as to block visibility from a nearby village.

In an instant, the village was plunged into hell. Twelve of the area’s sleeping residents never woke up. Hundreds more were taken to the hospital. Three more victims died in the hospital; the Indian government is currently pursuing connections with the styrene gas leak. Cattle, swine, and dogs were killed. Overnight, the same factory that had provided people with their livelihood had become a chemical weapon assailing them. The accident occurred at LG Polymers India, a factory operated directly in India by the South Korean company LG Chem, a global business with 28 trillion won (US$23.4 billion) in annual sales.

In the wake of the accident, Indian authorities set up an investigation committee of nine experts, including chemical specialists, police, and government officials. After an investigation lasting nearly two months, the committee published a July 6 report stretching over 4,000 pages, including appendices. Its pages include details on the situation at the time of the accident and its human and financial toll, as well as the causes and impact. The Hankyoreh is the first South Korean news outlet to provide in-depth coverage of the report.

Nearby residents inhaled over 800 tons of styrene gas in vaporized form
The cover of an Indian investigation report on the gas leak released on July 6
The cover of an Indian investigation report on the gas leak released on July 6

LG Polymers produces over 500 tons daily of polystyrene, a material used to make disposable coffee cup lids and other items. The factory in question was closed in March due to a COVID-19 lockdown order. The accident occurred in the process of its reopening.

The white vapor inhaled by the residents was a cloud formed as styrene -- a material used to make polystyrene -- was subjected to high temperatures. The committee concluded that some 818 tons of styrene was leaked in vaporized form that day. Over 800 tons of plastic material was vaporized and inhaled by residents.

What was the situation at the time of the accident? An investigation using ALOHA modeling found styrene concentrations ranging from 1,030 ppm to as much as 13,700 ppm at a location 200m from the tank in question. At 600m, the range was 126 to 1,590 ppm -- as much as 20 times the 700-ppm level of styrene concentration that is capable of causing life-threatening acute health issues.

The “Red zone” of concentrations dense enough to be lethal was estimated to extend for anywhere from 192 to 715m from the accident site. The “Orange zone,” where those exposed could suffer irreparable health problems, extended for between 588 and 2,100m; the “Yellow zone,” where those exposed experienced pain and discomfort extended for between 1,800 and 5,640m. This means that those within 700m of the tank were at risk of dying, while those with a 2km radius would have suffered irreparable health problems and those 5 to 6km away would have detected a foul smell.

In the event, between 12 and 15 people perished on the day of the accident. Fully 585 residents were taken to the hospital, while around 20,000 residents from 17,000 households within a 5km radius of the factory were evacuated. The evacuated residents were only able to return on May 10, after the styrene concentrations had fallen.

The effects on animals and soil were also severe. Thirty-four cattle, swine, and other livestock animals were killed on the day of the accident. Indian authorities have recommended that crops within a 5km radius not be eaten or sold due to suspected contamination. Analysis of samples taken from nine locations within the contaminated area showed styrene concentrations of 5,5950mg/kg in soil opposite the tank, as well as 1,125mg/kg in subsoil at a neighboring village. The levels considered safe are 0.01mg/kg for farmland and 50mg/kg for industrial zones.

Images of the 15 victims who died because of the gas leak. (provided by the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health)
Images of the 15 victims who died because of the gas leak. (provided by the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health)
“LG too focused on cost-cutting to hire skilled people”

One of the most notable findings in the report was that the factory had almost no technicians capable of responding to the unforeseen crisis. The commission’s analysis of a list submitted by LG found that not a single one of the 22 Indian engineers working at the factory had 10 or more years of working experience. Seventeen of them were trainees with almost no experience at all, while the longest-serving of the five others had been working for nine years and two months. The other four had between three and seven years of experience. The commission observed that the staff was sufficient to operate the factory, but not to respond appropriately to an emergency situation. The report’s conclusion was that LG Polymers was so focused on cutting costs that it did not hire workers with the necessary qualifications and skills.

The report further said the committee was “surprised” to learn that almost none of the employees at the factory had a master’s or doctoral degree in chemistry, and that individuals with only a bachelor’s degree were performing important senior engineer duties. A team leader at one South Korean chemical company explained, “If you have 10 or so years of experience, that puts you at the department director level. If they had people with less experienced than that, then you can’t say they have ‘veterans.’”

“Engineers are the pillars of a chemical factory. Their abilities determine the factory’s efficiency and productivity, and that’s what allows for an emergency response if an accident occurs,” the team leader said.

Responding to the claims, LG Chem insisted that it had been “continuing to increase staffing, with quite a few engineers with 10 or more years of experience.” It added that it planned to “establish the precise facts and provide a legal explanation.”

A cow that died because of the gas leak. (provided by the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health)
A cow that died because of the gas leak. (provided by the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health)
Accident emerges from problem-plagued factory

The LG Polymers factory had a number of other potentially accident-causing problems besides a shortage of key staff. Its tanks were 50 years old and not properly maintained, with poor internal conditions. The tanks also did not have a suppression system in place to reduce the internal temperature when it rose.

Employees also appear not to have received adequate safety instructions. The factory had five sirens in place for an accident scenario, with manual switches to activate them in 36 locations -- yet no one turned the switches on the day of the accident. The commission suggested that the damage would have been far less severe if the emergency switch had been turned on to wake the sleeping residents. It also noted that while emergency plans were in place for fire and explosion scenarios, none existed for a gas leak emergency.

The end result was a situation in which a reaction took place in an old, poorly maintained tank, causing the internal temperature to rise to 153.7°C. The rise was not suppressed and toxic gas escaped, yet the emergency siren was not sounded. Additionally, the company did nothing about a rise in concentrations within the tank that had been detected two weeks earlier on Apr. 25.

4 hours after India accident, LG Chem delivers first “vision declaration” in 14 years

The LG Polymers factory was established as a subsidiary under the 100% ownership of LG Chem’s India arm following the company’s 1997 acquisition of Hindustan Polymers. With annual sales of 220 billion won (US$183.8 million), it accounts for less than 1% of LG Chem’s total sales of 28 trillion won (US$23.4 billion). LG Chem has around 40 branches around the world in countries like China and India.

As it happened, the date of the accident on May 7 was the same day that LG Chem announced its first new “vision” in 14 years, with a message about “linking science with human lives for a better future.” If the company was aware of the accident, its vision announcement would have been an inappropriate gesture; if it was unaware, that would amount to a signal of its neglect. The accident time of 3 am in India corresponded to 6:30 am in South Korea.

Worst-ever styrene accident

The report included an analysis of 12 accidents involving styrene that occurred around the world between 1994 and 2005: four in Taiwan, six in the US, and one each in Japan and China. Most of them resulted from tank explosions.

“The LG Polymers Styrene vapour release from a bulk storage tank is a unique and exclusive accident,” the report concluded. The number of injuries and deaths was also relatively large. Of the 12 previous styrene-related accidents examined, the largest death toll occurred with a 2004 accident in China’s Jiangsu Province that claimed six lives.

On July 8, two South Korean nationals -- the local branch president and a technical advisor -- were taken into custody by Indian police on charges including manslaughter and negligent management of toxic substances. South Korean civic groups such as the Asian Citizens’ Center for Environment and Health and the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements maintained that the accident was the result of structure where a South Korean headquarters was responsible for 100% of investment and claimed 100% of the profits. They also insisted that the South Korean headquarters should be held clearly accountable in terms of civil and criminal law.

LG Chem said it was “dedicating every effort to develop comprehensive measures to resolve the situation in a swift and responsible way.”

By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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