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Poor maintenance of the storage facility during the lockdown may have led to the gas leakage at the Visakhapatnam chemical factory, said the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in its analysis of the gas tragedy, here on Thursday.

The New Delhi-based think tank looked into the details of the incident and published an independent assessment of the accident that has killed at least 11 people and left hundreds of people hospitalized.

While there has been no official statement from the National Disaster Response Force on the cause of the leakage, experts said, there is a high probability that optimum temperature was not maintained in the storage facility during the lockdown.

“Our investigation reveals that it is not the lockdown but restart of the plant without taking precautions to ensure safety that may have led to gas leak," environmentalist Sunita Narain, director general of CSE, New Delhi, tweeted. “Industries should have secured their premises and ensured that chemicals were safely stored. We cannot blame lockdown for their lack of action."

Styrene is a common chemical compound, but classified as a ‘hazardous and toxic chemical’ under Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989. It is stable, if it is strictly stored in cold conditions, at a temperature below 17 degrees C.

“But, it looks like, that the temperature was not properly maintained at the unit. This caused pressure to build up in the storage chamber and led the valve to break, resulting in the gas leakage," said Soundaram Ramanathan, deputy programme manager, industrial pollution, CSE.

The plant was temporarily shut due to Covid-19, except for maintenance activities, which were being carried out as per a pre-determined schedule. According to the CSE team, roughly three tonnes of the gas was stored in the silos and the feeding line.

“Styrene can stay in the air for weeks. It’s highly reactive; it can combine with oxygen to form styrene dioxide, which is more lethal. Operating one reactor in full load can also lead to such disasters," said professor Thava Palanisami, Global Centre for Environmental Remediation, University of Newcastle, Australia.

Another issue was the defunct volatile organic compound detector at the plant, spread over 600 acres, which could have enabled early detection of any leakage.

Over 36 years after the deadly gas leak in Bhopal, strict guidelines on storage of hazardous chemicals are still being flouted, experts said.

“This shows us that there are ticking bombs out there as the lockdown ends and industries start resuming activities. Therefore, an immediate directive must go to all units to ensure safety while resuming operations," stated the assessment.

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