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Koreans worry about safety after toxic factory leak

After a series of malfunctions, slow response time to accidents, and allegations of corruption, many South Koreans are anxious about industrial accidents, in part because of the lack of trust in public officials.

By Contributor / November 27, 2012

Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant reactor #5 is seen in Yeonggwang, South Jeolla province, south of Seoul, Nov. 5.

Ryu Hyeong-geun/Newsis/Reuters

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Gumi, South Korea

On Sept. 27, a dark cloud of gas came over Kim Sun-mi’s village in the industrial southwest of South Korea. She knew by the acrid smell that something had gone wrong at the nearby cluster of factories.

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She and her neighbors were evacuated, but they returned a day later after being told by the local government that the area was safe.

They went on with life for a few days, which meant preparing for Chuseok (Oct. 1), the equivalent of America's Thanksgiving holiday and South Korea's biggest holiday. Family members from across the country gathered at her place.

“No one bothered to tell us anything [more] about it,” says Ms. Kim, adding that, she didn’t see or hear anything on TV or the radio that indicated there was anything to worry about.
 

It was only four days later, after her kids happened upon an article on an Internet news portal that the explosion at the nearby Hube Global factory had caused the discharge of eight tons of hydrofluoric acid, an extremely dangerous substance that, if inhaled, can stay in the human body for up to 20 years and has been reported to cause a range of serious health problems, some of which don’t show up for years.

Kim and her neighbors had no idea that the dangerous gas was still lingering in the area and that they had been exposed all that time. The residents doubt anything more would have been done by the government if they hadn’t immediately pressed to be evacuated, despite the fact that Korean companies are supposed to have emergency plans and work in close conjunction with the local government in situations like these.

“Since hydrofluoric gas is classified as toxic material, companies handling such materials are obliged to have accident contingency plans prepared in advance. In the Hube Global case this obligation was not well kept,” says Kim Jeong-soo, deputy director of the nonprofit Citizens' Institute for Environmental Studies.

Slow response

Eleven days after the accident, residents were evacuated. The following day, the national government declared the area an official disaster zone. And more than a month and a half later, an investigation is ongoing, and the 300-some residents who were evacuated are still living in community centers.

The slow government response comes at a time when South Koreans are seriously questioning the safety and the reliability of those entrusted to maintain industrial safety standards. After a series of malfunctions and allegations of corruption, public trust is at a low when it comes to the country’s nuclear power plants. Many are anxious about industrial accidents, in part because of the lack of trust in public officials.

Five workers died in the explosion at the Hube Global Factory and 3,000 people sought medical treatment for symptoms associated with the toxic spill, according to the Gumi government and the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.

The explosion was caused by a leak in a gas tank. A government investigation found that some 122 hectares of crops were ruined, to the tune of 9.27 billion won ($8.5 million), and nearby factories lost some 17.7 billion won ($15.9 million). 

“The government says we can come here, but we can’t eat the fruit. They say the gas is on the crops, but it isn’t in the air, in the earth, or the water. It’s very illogical,” says Hong Jin-pyo, a local farmer who was evacuated to a community center indefinitely along with Kim and her family.

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