Kumi residents stuck in limbo after gas leak

Posted on : 2012-11-03 15:55 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Government says area will be safe after hydrofluoric gas was leaked, but residents still worry

By Kim Il-woo, Daegu correspondent

The streets were still eerily silent at 3 p.m. on Nov. 1 in Bongsan Village of Kumi, North Gyeongsang Province, the area hardest hit by the recent hydrofluoric acid leak. Residents who left their homes on their own on Oct. 6 and moved into nearby facilities or relatives’ houses had yet to return.

During one hour of traveling around the village and fields, not a single person was seen. Only the barking of lonely dogs, waiting for their owners, echoed out through the stillness. The doors community center and seniors’ center where the elderly of the village used to gather to chat at this time of day were bolted shut. Vegetables including squash, peppers, and sesame growing in the gardens of houses and crops on the field were abandoned and blighted. Placards reading, “Contaminated by the hydrofluoric acid leak. Not Edible,” were hung up, adding to the dreariness of it all.

The only person the Hankyoreh reporter came across that day was a woman in her 50s who said, “Most of the residents moved into temporary accommodations or are staying with relatives, The only people you ever see around are the youngsters who come by from time to time to feed the livestock during the day.”

At 7pm, the temporary residence in Baekhyeon Village, a 30-minute drive from Bongsan Village, was crowded with more than 100 people. Weary from the long displacement, the residents were sleeping or gazing at the TV. When the Hankyoreh reporter tried to talk to them, they responded irritably by saying, “Don’t bother us. Go talk to someone else.” A resident said, “Being away from home for so long, everybody is on their last nerve right now.”

The South Korean government declared the village a special disaster zone on Oct. 8 and announced compensation measures for the damage, but this has done little to allay the distrust and fear felt by the displaced residents. The government announced that it would be compensating residents for their lost agricultural yield and the livestock exposed to the chemicals at the market price. They also tried to calm the residents by saying that there would be no problem in next year’s farming because the hydrofluoric acid concentration in the air, water and soil, is below dangerous levels. But residents still remained chilly.

A resident identified only by her surname Jo, 54, said with a sigh, “Some say it’s safe and some say it’s dangerous, I don’t know whom I should believe. Even if we go back there and live, it’s obvious we have to live under a cloud of uneasiness for the rest of our lives.”

Village head, Park Myeong-suk, 49, said, “Even if we can farm next year, who is going to buy crops produced in a region exposed to hydrofluoric acid? The damage inflicted on the residents will go far beyond this year and might continue on indefinitely. The compensation measures set forth by the government and the Gumi municipal office will only cover the damages we see right at this moment.”

The number of people who have undergone medical examinations since the hydrofluoric acid leak on Sept. 25, amounts to 12,243, and the number of livestock exposed to the chemicals stands at 3,900, while 212 hectares of crops were damaged. The local government says that the results of their investigations of damaged agricultural crops and livestock, and air, soil and water quality show that levels of contamination are no longer harmful but this again has done little to assuage residents’ anxiety and health concerns.

An elderly man asked, “Can we go back to the village now? Do you think we’ll be able to farm next year? Tell us something, anything.” 

The government continues to tell residents to stay calm and that everything is fine, but the repercussions of the accident are still being felt long after the cloud of hydrofluoric acid has swept by.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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