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South Korea: Belated Response to Toxic Gas Leak Affecting Thousands

In the small South Korean city of Gumi, the authorities’ slow response to a toxic gas leakage disaster has prompted angry reactions from citizens.

On September 27, 2012, a chemical factory containing eight tons of toxic acid, exploded and resulted in a massive gas spill, creating a serious health hazard for thousands of villagers. South Korean authorities only began evacuating villagers on October 6, some ten days after the event.

The gas leaked from the plant explosion is hydrochloric acid, a highly toxic chemical that can damage the lungs, bones and the nervous system. The official number of affected villagers tops 600 people, but several thousand more are believed to have been exposed to fallout from the leakage and are in need of immediate treatment.

It was the villagers who begged the government for evacuation; the affected area was not designated as ‘special disaster zone’ until the third day of the gas spill.

Netizen outrage

Netizens have lambasted the government's belated response, city authorities’ incompetence and the mainstream media's silence on this critical issue. Twitter users have uploaded photos of farmland in the affected area.

This photo (copyrights uncertain) taken from well above the sea level, shows a vast area turned brown as the plants have died from the toxic chemical leak.

The images below shows vine and melon trees in the city rapidly dying:

Vine trees, nearly dead, turned brown, Twitter photo uploaded by @b0u7e6, the photo has been shared also in citizen media, Wiki Tree site.

Vine trees, nearly dead, turned brown, Twitter photo uploaded by @b0u7e6, the photo has been shared also in citizen media, Wiki Tree site.

Many cracks can be seen in the surface of melons and the leaves and trees have turned yellow, Twitter image uploaded by @v1004v, the photo has been shared also in citizen media, Wiki Tree site.

Many cracks can be seen in the surface of melons and the leaves and trees have turned yellow, Twitter image uploaded by @v1004v, the photo has been shared also in citizen media, Wiki Tree site.

Photos and testimonies have been shared on citizen media site, Wiki Tree, such as the comment below [ko]:

‘불산 누출’ 구미 봉산리 주민 300명, 마을 떠나기로 http://i.wik.im/87774  피해 상황이 눈덩이처럼 커지고 있습니다. 현재까지 2000명 가까이 병원 진료를 받은 것으로 나타났습니다.

Hydrochloric acid leakage has made 300 villagers in Gumi city, Bongsan-ri [name of the district] leave their homes. http://i.wik.im/87774 The damage has snowballed with the loss getting bigger and bigger. Two thousand have been hospitalized so far.

Twitter user @iron_heel wrote [ko]:

구미 불산가스 누출 사고 이후, 옥계 등 구미 아파트 단지 부근 노점에 할머니들이 팔던 채소를 주민들이 더 이상 구매하지 않는다는 소문이 돌고 잇습니다. 그만큼 불산 가스 노출된 구미 지역 농산물에 지역주민들이 민감하게 반응한다는거죠…

After the gas leak, news has been floating around that villagers no longer buy the vegetables old ladies used to sell in front of some apartment complexes such as Ok-gye. It's telling that villagers have started reacting sensitively to the farm products exposed to the acid gas.

@judybyun commented [ko] after linking to another famous citizen news site, OhMynews’ article:

아직 치료도 못 받은 주민도. 여론에만 신경쓰고 주민들 방치하는 구미시 꼴불견. 주민들만 패닉상태 RT@ohmynews_korea 떠나는 구미 시민들…”우리 건강 아무도 안챙겨줘”http://bit.ly/TebHBH

It is just so hard to watch villagers who still havent received proper treatment and the Gumi city authorities doing nothing for them other than minding what the outsiders are saying over the issue. It is only the villagers who are panicking out. RT @ohmynews_korea Gumi villagers leaving their places, saying “no one cares about our health” http://bit.ly/TebHBH

And also expressed disbelief on how the authorities have kept this case silent for several days:

세상에… 쉬쉬하다 도시하나를 날리겠네[...]

Oh my goodness. They could easily have blown up a city whilst busy keeping this things under the radar [...]

On the same day the evacuation was ordered, a Twitter photo of South Korean president at an Italian coffee shop in Seoul's poshest neighborhood, leisurely sipping coffee was uploaded. Many have retweeted the photo below, most of them angrily criticizing [ko] him for not visiting the city and checking up on the emergency situation.

President at a coffee shop with the First Lady, Twitter image uploaded by user @mutation_H

President at a coffee shop with the First Lady, Twitter image uploaded by user @mutation_H

The gas spill made national headlines and caught people's attention only a week after the incident actually happened. Net users have lashed out hard at the mainstream media's silence and lackluster coverage.

Kim Yong-min, one of the hosts of the popular political podcast show, Naggomsu, tweeted [ko]:

내가 사는 동네에 참사가 나 피해가 커지는데, 권력에 장악된 언론이 우물쭈물하며 보도하기를 기피한다면 그래서 관이 부동자세라면… 소설이 아니라 현실입니다. 구미 보세요. 언론장악은 그래서, 민생파탄과 직결됩니다.

Let us imagine if my village had an incident and the damage was getting bigger, but the media controlled by the power hesitated to report on the incident. And due to their lack of coverage, the [local] government does not even bother to move the slightest bit… That is not just a scenario for a fiction novel, but a reality taking place in Gumi. That is why the domination of media by power directly leads to suffering and collapse of [ordinary] citizens.

@jinmadang explained [ko] the political context. Gumi has been a conservative stronghold where the ruling Saenuri party's candidates have an easy win in most elections. The upcoming presidential election is in December this year.

구미가 왜 비상상황에서 홀대받는지 아세요? 텃밭이기 때문입니다. 잡은 고기 밥 안주는 것과 비슷하달까요. 거기가 표가 안나오는 지역이면 달려가서 달콤한 대책 내놔도 벌써 내놨지요. 이번엔 몰표라는 어리석은 짓 안하기를 바랍니다.

Do you know what Gumi is being ignored and not treated as the top priority emergency issue? Because the city is a safe ground that has been loyal to the ruling conservative party: You never feed the fish you caught. If that place had voted against the ruling party, they would hurriedly visit the place and came up with some plans packaged in sweet words. I really hope the villagers don't make the dumb mistake of single-handedly voting for conservative party– again this time.

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