On Sept. 27, some eight tons of hydrofluoric acid, an acute poison that can damage lungs and bones and affect the nervous system, leaked from chemical maker Hube Globe in Gumi, some 200 kilometers southeast of Seoul, killing five workers and injuring 18 others.
The leaked gas has since sickened more than 3,000 residents and hundreds of villagers in the affected region have been evacuated to safer areas, with an acrid smell still hanging in the air in two villages that are home to some 1,200 people, according to officials and villagers.
Crops and fruit on more than 212 hectares of farmlands and orchards have withered, and some 3,200 livestock animals have been drooling heavily or showing symptoms similar to a cold, they added.
The gas leak has also cost factories in the industrial complex about 17.7 billion won (US$15.9 million) in lost production, prompting calls for emergency help from the central government.
The government belatedly sent a team of on-site inspectors to Gumi last Friday and announced its decision to designate the accident scene a special disaster zone after a meeting of relevant vice ministers at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
Under law, a government-designated special disaster area is entitled to extra financial aid from the central government to cover rehabilitation costs. Affected residents are given tax cuts and are entitled to delay payment of their taxes and public insurance and national pension bills.
So far, the South Korean government has declared special disaster zones six times, with the latest in 2007 when some 12,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the seas off Taean, 150 kilometers southwest of Seoul, after a oil tanker collided with a barge, causing extensive damage to residents economically and the ecological system along the west coast.
"Last week's examination showed the damage is presumed to be too extensive for the local government to handle on its own," said Yook Dong-han, the vice minister of the PMO., explaining the reason for the decision.
"The government will make detailed measures and standards to administer support, and plans to carry out another round of in-depth inspections into the region as early as possible," he added.
As part of efforts to prevent similar accidents from happening again, the government said it will conduct a special inspection into companies that deal with such dangerous chemicals within the month.
"The declaration is belated, but the move is expected to relieve the residents here who have been agonized not only by poor health conditions but also by financial burdens incurred by property damage," said Park Myung-seok, the head of the affected residents' association.
"Apart from financial support, we urge the government to devise systematic ways to ensure public health. Conducting a long-term epidemiologic survey could be one option," Gumi resident Kim Young-chun said.
Meanwhile, a group of the residents said they plan to file a compensation suit against the chemical firm for the extensive damage, with a local community-based civic group reviewing legal actions against the government for its improper response to the disaster.
"We will continue to listen to the residents and do everything to find ways for compensation," company official Shin Young-cheol said.