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South Korea Battles Plant Leak

Plant Safety: Hydrofluoric acid accident kills five workers and sickens thousands of people nearby

by Jean-François Tremblay
October 12, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 42

Credit: Newscom
A banner calls for the government to respond to a hydrofluoric acid leak.
Photo of a man standing in front of a banner calling for the government to come up with measures to deal with a disastrous gas leak at a gas-contaminated village in Gumi, some 261 kilometers south of Seoul, on Oct. 8, 2012.
Credit: Newscom
A banner calls for the government to respond to a hydrofluoric acid leak.

The South Korean government has declared a “special disaster zone” in a region in central South Korea where a chemical plant leaked hydro­fluoric acid. The designation means that affected residents will be financially compensated and that authorities will monitor their health.

The accident occurred on Sept. 27 while workers were unloading the material at South Korean hydrofluoric acid producer Hube Global in Gumi, a city 125 miles southeast of Seoul, according to the government-affiliated Yonhap News Agency.

The accident killed five Hube workers, sickened more than 3,000 people in the vicinity of the plant site, damaged crops, and affected livestock. On the basis of security camera footage, South Korean police believe that Hube workers were negligent in following proper safety guidelines, Yonhap reports.

Critical of the haphazard response of local authorities, the Prime Minister’s Office became involved, declaring on Oct. 8 that the area is eligible for special government support. The Prime Minister’s Office is coordinating a multiagency response, according to its press office and statements from the Ministry of Environment.

Hydrofluoric acid is a particularly toxic chemical, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. It can injure lung tissue when inhaled and cause pulmonary edema. Even splashes on the skin can be fatal.

The material is made by only a handful of companies worldwide, the main ones being Honeywell, DuPont, and Solvay, says Kenneth M. Stern, a New York City-based senior managing director at FTI Consulting who has worked in the chemical industry for 40 years.

Hydrofluoric acid is used in petroleum refineries as a catalyst for the alkylation process, Stern tells C&EN. In addition, he says, “it is one of the most critical wet-process electronic chemicals used for semiconductor processing, where the strong electronegative nature of fluorine allows for the removal of a wide range of oxides.”

On its website, Hube Global says its hydrofluoric acid is suitable for manufacturing of liquid-crystal displays. In operation since 2008, the Gumi plant has a production capacity of 9,000 metric tons per year.



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