Hydrogen fluoride seems to cause amnesia
“When I looked down from my office on the 17th floor, I could see several hundred people just dancing around claiming that all of the Gwangyang city citizens will die,” said Lee Sang-jo, 79, who at the time was the head of Yeosu Gwangyang Port Authority.
The protesters, some Democratic Party (DP) politicians, were “dancing” in objection to the building of a hydrogen fluoride plant.
“Why would anyone die?” he asks. “If people died from building one single plant, then people who lived next to the Yeosu National Industrial Complex should have died already.”
Lee believes the failure to build a hydrogen fluoride plant was largely the result of politics.
“Politicians in trying to win votes have made residents believe that if the plant were built they would all die, when actually it would have been fine and well managed for safety,” Lee said.
In February 2012, Yeosu Gwangyang Port Authority was on the verge of signing a 300 billion won ($248 million) investment from Mexico City-based Mexichem.
The plan was to bring in the raw materials from mines from Mexico and then process them in Korea. Some of the hydrogen fluoride would be sold in Korea while some would be exported to Japan.
The goal was not only to do some business in the manufacturing of hydrogen fluoride once the plant went into operation in 2014, but also to boost the port in South Jeolla with the importation of raw materials and export of product.
The then opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), today’s DP, joined forces with environmental activities and started campaigning against the new hydrogen fluoride plant.
Moon Jae-in, a presidential candidate at the time, even went to the accident site 10 days later with a gas mask on and posted on his social media that his throat and eyes stung despite experts saying that the hydrofluoric acid had all evaporated.
As a result, the plant that was to be built in Gwangyang was canceled. Today, on the site of the planned facility, shipping containers sit stacked high.
Hydrogen fluoride, of course, is back in the news and for very different reasons. Japan is restricting exports of the gas to Korea.
The protests against the hydrogen fluoride plant were started by Lee Jung-moon, the then head of the Gwangyang city council and also a member of the DUP. He joined forces with environmental activists and encouraged protests against the plant, claiming all will die if it is built.
Other politicians joined in, as well as the South Jeolla government. Then Gwangyang mayor Lee Sung-woong climbed on the bandwagon, saying he would join the protest personally if the decision to build the hydrogen fluoride plant was not withdrawn.
The city council and environmental groups released official statements supporting the politician’s move.
Woo Yoon-keun, the current Korean ambassador to Russia, was one of the Gwangyang council members demanding the withdrawal of the plant.
Joo Seung-yong, the Bareunmirae Party lawmaker who at the time was a member of the DUP representing Yeosu, and Lee Nak-yon, now the prime minister who at the time was also a DUP lawmaker representing South Jeolla, did not protest to the building of the plant. But their thoughts on it were never clearly expressed.
Bareunmiare Party lawmaker Kim Kwang-young, who represented Gunsan and was a member DUP, North Jeolla, at the time accused the port authority of only seeking profit.
“They’re ignoring the safety of the residents,” Kim said.
As regional and national government politicians protested, public opinion on the plant turned.
Former port authority president Lee said he tried to convince the lawmakers and visited a Mexichem plant in Britain. But he only got cynical responses, like “if you like it so much, why not build it on your own hometown in Milyang?”
“I thought I couldn’t do it alone, so I went to Seoul and made contacts here and there,” Lee said. “But there was no one willing to help.”
He said even the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which is in charge of the ports in Korea, denied help. They asked him why he was pursuing a project that everyone was against.
“They told me that if I wanted to do it, I should do it on my own,” Lee said.
“I don’t know whether the government was afraid of the politicians or if they had no intention of helping as I was an outsider who took up a position that was normally given to bureaucrats.”
He said he had lost, and the only reason was because of politics. On Nov. 28 that year, Lee officially announced the withdrawal of the plant project.
“What kind of country runs like this?” Lee said. “It was a good chemical company that could have contributed greatly to the country’s development.”
He said even today not being able to secure the plant is his biggest regret.
“It finally went to Japan,” Lee said.
Mexichem currently has 137 plants in 36 countries and employs over 22,000 employees.
“Even if we go back to that point in time, knowing the results that we know today, we would still have to give up because politicians will again protest against it to win votes,” Lee said. “No matter how much we need it, we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
“What’s the point of continuously talking about it?” Lee commented.
Seven years since the hydrogen fluoride plant plan was scrapped, President Moon and the Blue House as well as the ruling DP are all calling for the independent development of the gas.
They said the government will ease regulations to build chemical plants, including those for hydrogen fluoride. The chemical component is still as toxic as ever.
When asked about the plant by JoongAng Ilbo, Ambassador Woo said he wasn’t able to see far off into the future.
“Gwangyang is a city where there’s a strong voice from environmental activists since Posco plants are there,” said Woo. “If you have no interests in the region, it would be easy to make comments. But [if so,] it would be difficult to [simply] tell residents to accept it no matter what the economic value is or how much the country is in need.”
He said when looking back, it was a missed opportunity. “But at the time, there was no urgency,” Woo said.
Joo Seung-yong of the Bareunmirae Party, who is also currently the vice speaker of the Korean National Assembly, said now the plant is necessary.
“I don’t remember exactly my position at the time, as I vaguely remember since [Gwangyang] wasn’t my constituency,” Joo said.
He then stressed the difficulty of being a politician.
“When I was Yeosu’s mayor in 1998, we were supposed to win a plant plan from BASF,” said Joo. “But because of strong protests of civic groups, we were only able to build one plant and the other two went to China.”
Lee Jung-moon, former DUP lawmaker and one of the biggest protesters, told the JoongAng Ilbo that a hydrogen fluoride plant is necessary in Korea.
However, he was firm that the plant shouldn’t be built in Gwangyang.
“At the time, I knew the importance and the necessity of the plant and agreed on the establishment of the plant,” Lee said.
“But I haven’t changed my view that the plant should be built in an area that has a lower population density than that of Gwangyang.”
Prime Minister Lee, in participating in an event celebrating the publication of Lee Jung-moon’s book in 2014, praised the lawmaker.
“I have worked with him for a very long time, and he is the most ideal leader of our time,” said the prime minister, who was the DUP lawmaker at the time. “The people of Gwangyang have to trust this man.”
When asked recently, Prime Minister Lee said he didn’t know about the issue.
“I only visited the book event at the requests of Lee Jung-moon, who was running for South Jeolla governor,” Lee said.
BY AHN HYE-RI [firstname.lastname@example.org]