Indian police file homicide complaint against LG Chem after deadly leak

CHENNAI, India/SEOUL (Reuters) - Indian police have filed a culpable homicide complaint against an LG Chem subsidiary over a toxic gas leak at its chemical plant in the south of the country that killed 11 people and forced 800 into hospital for treatment from poisoning.

A policeman tries to revive a dog near the site of the LG Polymers Plant following a gas leak at the plant in Visakhapatnam, India, May 8, 2020. REUTERS/R Narendra

A day after the leak, authorities doubled the evacuation area around the factory in Andhra Pradesh to a 5 kilometre (3 mile) radius, waking residents in the middle of the night and herding them into buses in case more poison should escape.

Police took to the streets with loudhailers to tell residents to leave their homes and board the buses, said Sheikh Salim, a 21 year old fruit seller who lives about 2.5 km from the plant.

A copy of the police complaint filed against the management of LG Chem’s subsidiary LG Polymers, reviewed by Reuters, cited several counts of negligence and culpable homicide.

The report, which precedes a full police investigation and potential charges, refers to negligent handling of poisonous substances and causing hurt and endangering public life. An LG Chem spokesman in Seoul declined to comment on the report.

On Friday the National Green Tribunal, India’s environmenal court, formed a five-member committee to investigate the leak. Authorities said the leak came from styrene, a principal raw material at the plant, which makes polystyrene plastic used in cutlery, cups and packaging for cosmetics.

Residents described being awakened before dawn on Thursday by a cloud of noxious smelling vapour, struggling for breath and suffering pain and itchy eyes. Unconscious victims and the bodies of dead cows lay in the streets.

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Though on a smaller scale, the deadly leak revived memories of a gas escape from a factory of U.S. chemical firm Union Carbide in 1984 that killed thousands of people in the central Indian city of Bhopal. That incident caused a national trauma and made Indians bitterly sensitive to lax safety standards at foreign-owned factories.

LG Chem, South Korea’s biggest petrochemical firm said on Friday it had asked police to expand the evacuation zone as a “precautionary measure”, because temperatures in storage tanks might rise. “We are taking necessary measures, including putting water into the tank,” the company said in a statement.

N. Surendra Anand, a fire officer in Visakhapatnam district, told Reuters that the expanded evacuation was triggered because more gas had escaped from the plant.

“The situation is tense,” he said.

Srijana Gummalla, commissioner of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation, said gas emissions had been fluctuating through the day and had largely subsided.

LG Chem shares fell 2.4% in early trade on Friday, before regaining some ground to be down 0.6% against the broader South Korea market’s 1% gain. The stock lost nearly 2% on Thursday.

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(GRAPHIC: Gas leak in Andhra Pradesh - )

The factory was in the process of reopening after a weeks-long shutdown imposed by Indian authorities to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, local officials and the company said.

The leak has led to fears of a backlash against Korean businesses in India, where Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and others have a large presence.

“We are very cautious and keeping a low profile,” an official at Korea International Trade Association in India said.

The trade body on Thursday sent a letter to member companies calling for “thorough” maintenances to prevent accidents, as companies prepare to reopen plants following the relaxation.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan in CHENNAI and Hyunjoo Jin in SEOUL; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal and Alasdair Pal; Editing by Euan Rocha, Jane Wardell and Peter Graff