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Massive chemical leaks at South Korea petrochemical plant leave 650 with health problems

21 May 2019

More than 650 people are suffering from severe headaches, nausea, giddiness or other health problems after inhaling chemical vapour leaked from Hanwha Total Petrochemical’s Deasan plant in Seosan, west central South Korea, local authorities said on May 21.

Daesan plant - Image: Hanwha Total Petrochemical
Daesan plant - Image: Hanwha Total Petrochemical

Video footage of the first incident on May 17 shows a massive spray, tens of metres high, from a ruptured tank. A similar incident took place the day after. At least 110 metric tons of harmful substances leaked during the two events, the company said.

Some 60 tons of styrene monomer residue is left in the tank, which initially held 170 tons. The chemical is a colourless flammable liquid used to manufacture synthetic resins, such as Styrofoam.

Many of the plant’s 327 workers were treated for dizziness and vomiting, as well as nearby residents. Villagers up to four kilometres from the plant were affected, according to local media.

The company, a 50:50 joint venture of Hanwha General Chemicals and French energy giant Total, faces allegations of attempting to cover up the leakages.

Korean news agency Yonhap reported Seosan Mayor Maeng Jeong-ho claiming there was no notification anything was amiss until the city government called to confirm the first leak on May 17 almost two hours after the first inclident, and there was no notification about the second leak on May 18.

Under the Toxic Chemicals Control Act, chemicals accidents must be reported to the relevant municipality or fire station immediately.

Yonhap quoted an official of South Chungcheong Province saying the company faced sanctions if it was found to have infringed regulations.

The Korea Times said the company reported the temperature inside the troubled tank soared over 100 degrees Celsius on May 17, two times hotter than the average range of 50-60 degrees Celsius.

Styrene monomer becomes highly flammable at over 65 degrees Celsius. The second leak happened when workers were trying to stabilise the tank by injecting coolant foam.

The Times cited a local politician claiming the root cause of the leaks was the company’s decision to assign workers unfamiliar with the task to replace those who are on strike. Company workers have been on a strike since April 25 over a wage dispute.

Company CEO Kwon Hyuk-woong apologised for the leaks and confirmed that operations had ceased at the plant pending an investigation.

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