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

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.

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“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.

Not a new problem

This isn’t the first time an industrial accident of this magnitude has taken place in Gumi.

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. 

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