The South Korean government declared a special disaster zone in the south yesterday amid criticism over poor handling of a toxic gas disaster. The central government will finance recovery and rehabilitation efforts, while offering tax cuts and compensation for residents. “We are drawing up all possible measures to reduce damage and protect residents,” said Yook Dong-han of the Prime Minister’s office. Five workers were killed and 18 injured on September 27, when eight tons of hydrofluoric acid leaked from a chemical plant in the industrial city of Gumi, 200 kms southeast of Seoul. In the following days, 3,000 local residents went to hospital, complaining of rashes, headaches and respiratory problems. Crops and fruit on around 212 hectares of farmland have withered and 3,200 livestock animals have shown symptoms of nausea, according to Gumi city officials. Five nearby factories suspended operations because of health concerns. Hydrofluoric acid, which is mainly used to remove rust, can damage lungs and bones and affect the nervous system when it is exposed to air. The belated response of the government is under fire since residents were given no warning about the leak. Environment Minister Yoo Young-sook did not visit the affected area until 10 days after the incident. Jung Soo-gun, director of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement in Daegu, said damage had already spread at that point. Around 300 residents who have been evacuated also criticized the government’s belated reaction. Park Myoung-seok, head of one of the affected villages, said the government should take action so “residents can go back home without fear of after effects.” The affected residents and companies are planning to file a class action suit against the plant's owners, Hube Global. Shin Hyoung-cheol, spokesman for Hube Global, said his company would try its best “to make compensation for the damages.” According to experts, it may take more than five years for the damaged area to fully recover its agricultural land.
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