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.
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This isn’t the first time an industrial accident of this magnitude has taken place in Gumi.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1991, a factory storage tank leaked phenol into the local water supply. The water was then consumed in households nearby, causing thousands to become seriously ill.
In that case, many of those who had been responsible for maintaining industrial safety standards in the area were accused of either being negligent in their duties or bought off by companies they knew were taking risky shortcuts.
Officials from the factory were swiftly imprisoned, which led some to hope that the era of businesses disregarding environmental protection in the pursuit of profit was over and that a new, more cautious era would commence.
Park Jong-shik has lived in Gumi his whole life and is now head of the residents’ association. In spite of South Korea’s rapid development, he says some things have remained the same since 1991. “In both cases the companies didn’t follow the rules. They took risks and regular people had to suffer," he says.
Indeed, allegations of malfeasance have been made this time as well. The complex that housed the Hube Global factory was originally zoned for digital industry, which led many residents and reporters to question how a plant that uses dangerous chemicals got there in the first place, especially in an area so close to people’s homes.
According to the local police chief, the factory was there legally. “There was nothing illegal about their presence in the industrial complex,” says Gumi Police Chief Seo Woon-shik.
Mr. Seo says there is no investigation into Hube Global’s right to have been operating there, only into whether the company’s mishandling of chemicals amounts to negligence resulting in death. No charges have yet been made, and operations at the factory are still suspended.
In cases of disaster in South Korea, it is customary for the local government to shoulder responsibility for the immediate outcome. Due to the scale of this accident, the national government took over jurisdiction.
Some residents blame the accident on the national government’s easing of regulations on where factories that handle dangerous chemicals can be located. In 1999, as South Korea was still struggling to come out of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance eased restrictions to encourage business in the area. Regulations were further relaxed in 2000.
Vladimir Sakharov, director of Green Cross International's Environmental Emergencies Preparedness Program, a nonprofit based out of Geneva, says communities like Gumi, with people living close to industry, need measures to prepare in advance for the possibility of accidents.
“Preparedness for environmental emergencies in Gumi and other industrial sites all around the world is crucial. As more and more people and assets are located in areas of high risk in many countries, there is an increasing need for measures to be taken at the local level to improve risk management and preparedness for various disasters,” says Mr. Sakharov.
Though the South Korean government announced that 10.8 billion won ($9.7 million) had been allocated to help locals recover from the accident, residents say that’s not enough.
Mr. Park is seeking new homes for the evacuated residents and compensation for the crops they have lost. “We want someone to be responsible for what happened,” says Park while seated cross-legged on the heated floor of his makeshift office, a bedroom in the community center.
“We just want to live somewhere safe,” he says.