중앙데일리

The government tests the water, but ecologists say more must be done.

How does the government protect the water supply?

Mar 11,2008
Government workers from the city of Gumi hand out bottled water to residents on Feb. 2 after phenol leaked into the tap water supply of the Nakdong River. [YONHAP]
An explosion at a chemical factory on March 1 caused a leak of toxic substances into the main drinking water source of the Gyeongsang provinces in the nation’s southern region, raising concerns about public health.
A fire broke out at Kolon Chemical factory in Gumi, North Gyeongsang, and cities and villages located downstream of the Nakdong River feared their tap water would be contaminated with toxic chemicals. Gyeongsang residents’ concerns were alleviated last Friday, when the Busan city government announced that the river was clear of toxic chemicals as of 7 p.m. that night.
This is the second time that the Nakdong River was contaminated by phenol, and the incident raised fears of a repeat of a disastrous phenol leak in 1991 from an electronic company. In that incident, a Doosan Electro-Materials factory in Gumi spilled 30 tons of the chemical in March and another 30 tons in April that year. About 11,000 residents in South Gyeongsang, whose water supply comes from the river, suffered from the incident.
Phenol, also known as carbolic acid, is a toxic, colorless crystalline solid with a sweet, tar-like odor. It is an important basic raw material in the manufacture of synthetic resins, pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs and other versatile chemicals. It is also used in the manufacture of rubber chemicals, pesticides and antioxidants.
The chemical can cause skin to peel and cause stomachaches, nausea and paralysis if it enters the body through the respiratory system. When the toxic chemical is mixed with water, it can cause cancer.
The latest chemical spill occurred in Gumi following a fire at a Kolon Chemical factory. The environmental authorities believe that water used to fight the fire seeped into a nearby stream, which connects to the Nakdong River. Water tests also found that formaldehyde leaked into the river.
Thirty one hours later, the toxic chemicals reached the Gumi waterworks 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) away from the explosion site.
Cities along the river suspended collecting water from the contaminated river as the chemicals gradually traveled downstream. According to water management authorities, phenol was diluted as it traveled the river. By the time it reached the Maegok waterworks on March 3, the concentration of the chemical was 0.005 milligrams per liter. That amount is the same as the limit of phenol allowed by law in drinking water.
Maegok waterworks is the main tap water supply facility for Daegu, a city of 2.5 million. Of the 800,000 tons of tap water used daily in Daegu, 78 percent comes from the river.
As the chemical continued to travel downstream, Busan authorities said the contaminated water from the river would reach the Mulgeum waterworks around 3 p.m. on Friday. The waterworks collect 94 percent of the tap water used daily in Busan.
The Busan authorities said tests have been conducted at various points along the river every hour but no toxic chemicals, such as phenol and formaldehyde, were detected as of Friday afternoon. They said the chemicals had been effectively diluted by increasing the amount of water discharged from dams on the upper stream, but they remain cautious and are continuing tests.

Lab researchers at a water purification facility in Masan examine water samples from the Nakdong River.[YONHAP]
The waterworks headquarters of the Busan Metropolitan City said Friday that it lifted the emergency alert, as no toxic chemicals were detected in the river downstream near the city. “Just in case, we will continue testing the waters until Monday [March 10],” the city waterworks said in a release.
Although contamination fears have been relieved, environmentalists are concerned about the local authorities’ poor oversight of water management and the lack of a disaster-management system.
“The recent crisis shows that Korea still does not have an appropriate system to counter a toxic chemical leak into a drinking water source despite a series of water contamination accidents since the 1991 phenol leak in the Nakdong River,” the Korean Federation of Environmental Movement said in a March 3 statement. “No measures were taken to minimize the leak of toxic chemicals while putting out the fire at the chemical factory. The initial measure to contain the leak, such as building small dikes in the nearby stream, was only conducted four hours after phenol was leaked into the river.
“The factory was located only 35 kilometers away from the nearest waterworks, but no early alarm system was in place to detect water contamination.”
The environmental group said the government must strengthen its supervision of safety measures at chemical factories, pointing out that many such facilities are located near rivers.
“The country needs a drastic upgrade to its disaster prevention system,” the federation said. “Relief agencies and local authorities must be ready to contain a chemical leak within an hour of an incident.”
The environmentalists also said that public servants must pay more attention to implementing the existing system.
“Since the first phenol leak in 1991, Korea has adopted 26 biohazard alert systems to monitor the nation’s four major rivers,” the group said. “However, the alert system played no role in containing the latest incident.” The government must check if those expensive systems are operating properly and expand the system as needed to cover more streams connected to the main rivers, the group said.


By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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