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South Korea’s Silicon Valley declared ‘disaster zone’ after chemical leak

Published time: October 09, 2012 09:15
Edited time: October 09, 2012 13:15
Fruit in the disaster zone near Gumi. (Image from twitter user @foreverphoenix7)

Fruit in the disaster zone near Gumi. (Image from twitter user @foreverphoenix7)

South Korea declared an area southeast of the capital Seoul a ‘special disaster’ zone after a toxic chemical leak in late September. Around 3,000 people sought medical aid after the incident, and many criticized the government for its slow response.

­The prime minister’s office said in a statement that “the government decided to designate the area affected by the leak of hydrofluoric acid as a special disaster zone.”

About eight tons of hydrofluoric acid escaped from a facility owned by chemical manufacturer Hube Globe following an explosion that killed five workers and injured 18 others. Exposure to the acid can cause damage to lungs and bones and affect the nervous system.

The incident occurred on September 27 when workers of the Gumi National Industrial Complex were unloading the acid from a tanker in North Gyeongsang Province – the Korean Silicon Valley, 200 kilometers southeast of Seoul.

Since then, more than 3,000 residents in the area requested medical treatment for eye, throat and lung irritation caused by toxic fumes from the spill. Around 300 people were moved from their homes to temporary shelters, with complaints ranging from nausea to chest pains.  

The leak affected nearly 80 businesses, some of which were forced to close down. Total damages were estimated at 17.7 billion won ($15.9 million), Yonhap news agency said. The spill also damaged more than 200 hectares (500 acres) of farmland and affected 3,200 livestock animals.

Villagers accused the government of failing to provide a timely warning about the chemical spill, prompting the government to send an inspection team to Gumi. On Monday, the government announced its decision to designate the area a special disaster zone after the Prime Minister’s office held a meeting with the relevant vice ministers.

The prime minister’s statement confirmed that the leak had caused "considerable" damage, but said that exact figures would only be provided after the completion of the ongoing assessment by government officials and experts.

Under current South Korean law, a government-designated special disaster area is entitled to extra financial aid from the central government to cover rehabilitation costs. Residents of such an area are given tax cuts and can delay payment on their taxes and public insurance and national pension bills.