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Vladimir Sakharov Q&A: Environmental emergency preparedness and prevention

The 27 September 2012 Gumi hydrofluoric acid spill in the Republic of Korea (RoK) posed a lot of questions regarding prevention and preparedness for manmade environmental emergencies.

In this Q&A, Vladimir Sakharov, Director of Environmental Emergency Preparedness at Green Cross International, said lessons should be learned from the accident that can help already well developed countries, such as RoK, and less advanced nations be better prepared for similar events in the future. 

1.  How dangerous is hydrofluoric acid and how does it harm humans? 
Hydrofluoric acid is highly toxic and extremely dangerous, even in very low concentrations.  It affects the human body through eye contact, inhalation, ingestion and skin exposure.   It poses severe health risks and may lead to death upon exposure.  The same applies to animals.  Exposed vegetation and crops would be partially or totally destroyed.  Fluorides are strongly retained by soil components.  Then they may accumulate in plants.  In human and animal body fluorides accumulate primarily in the bones.

2.  What are the key steps to be taken during the immediate aftermath of such a toxic disaster?
Immediate steps are pretty standard and typically include protection of personnel and population, confinement and neutralization.  Only professional emergency response teams with all necessary precautions can do this.  A disaster of this type and magnitude would require evacuation of personnel and potentially affected population.

3.  Is it possible to clean up the affected area so the environment is safe and people can return home and farmers can grow crops? 
Clean up and rehabilitation should be possible. Methodology and technique exist. Details would depend on local conditions and specifics. The biggest problem may not be technical but financial.  Normally, such operations are expensive.

4.  Why is preparedness at local level important, and what should be done to prevent similar accidents?
It is universally recognized that effective preparedness at local level can save lives and money.  But while preparedness is everybody’s responsibility, civil society and non-governmental organizations in all countries, including South Korea, have a prominent role in building capacities of local authorities and communities. Preparedness for environmental emergencies in Gumi and other industrial sites all around the world is crucial.  As more and more people and assets are located in areas of high risk in many countries, there is an increasing need for measures to be taken at the local level to improve risk management and preparedness for various disasters. Communities and local people are at the forefront of responding to emergencies including man-made disasters.  Reducing risk at the local level therefore is fundamental.  

Properly maintained industrial sites, together with well-prepared adjacent communities and protected ecosystems, can contribute to cost-effective disaster risk reduction and local resilience.
Studies, research and consolidated practice confirm the involvement of communities, and the adoption of a participatory approach to risk management, represent the most cost-effective and sustainable mechanism for reducing risks.  Greater outreach at local and community levels is needed in all countries, as adequate disaster preparedness at local level is among the tools required for facilitating the process of sustainable development.

5.  What is Green Cross doing in the area of preparedness and how you can help people?
Green Cross is keen to assist communities with preparedness to environmental emergencies, and is developing a comprehensive programme in this field. We are designing projects in Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, which aim at building preparedness capacity of authorities, communities and relevant organization for environmental emergencies, including industrial/technological accidents.

Activities include the development of community emergency plans for specific sites, the organization of seminars to exchange experience in industrial accident prevention, preparedness and response, as well as the development of materials to support training and capacity building activities at selected locations.  The main target beneficiaries are communities living near the selected sites, as they will greatly benefit from improved safety and preparedness.  This process will make local authorities aware of various risks and hazards and enable them to act in a swift and focused way.

6. Are you the only international organization dealing with preparedenss for environmental emergencies?
The issue of emergency preparedness is too large to be addressed by any single entity, and it requires the concerted efforts of all relevant actors.  For this reason, we are working in partnership with UN Environment Programme’s “Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level” (APELL) process, as well as with UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Environmental Emergency Centre. There are many other partners at global, regional and local levels.

7.  How can Green Cross help authorities and local communities in RoK reinforce emergency preparedness?
I would invite colleagues in South Korea to make full use of APELL mechanism – an excellent tool that the United Nations together with Green Cross International have at their disposal.  We can launch a project in Gumi and other industrial sites in RoK for the sake of environmental emergency preparedness and protection of population.  This could be a joint venture of central and local authorities in South Korea, UNEP, OCHA, and Green Cross International.  Another important actor would be the national non-governmental organitation Green Cross South Korea, which is relatively young but very dynamic. 

In the case of Gumi and other industrial areas we would expect to reach, we expect the following results:

  • Enhanced capacity of local authorities, communities and relevant organizations for environmental emergency preparedness
  • Increased awareness of hazards and risks at local level
  • Improved understanding and experience of local authorities in creating and implementing community emergency plans
  • Safer production and better local level preparedness for industrial accidents
  • Safer handling of hazardous substances in chemical industry
  • Bridging gaps between local populations and industrial companies
  • Basis for replicating experience in other locations and countries

In general, such a project in Gumi (and elsewhere in RoK) would generate a broader involvement of civil society, concerned industries, private sector, corporate associations and non-governmental organizations in efforts to address risk management and preparedness for environmental emergencies. Local authorities in Gumi will also benefit from acquiring first-hand experience in emergency preparedness and contingency planning.  Industrial and private business partners will benefit from knowledge and capacity building on safer production, chemical safety and local emergency preparedness.

8.  What advice would you give South Korea and other governments that have to cope with such emergencies?
I am sure that RoK specialists and scientists know what and how to respond from now on in.  I would urge colleagues in South Korea to take a proactive approach and initiate a project, so this could benefit the entire international community.  Lessons from this environmental emergency would be extremely valuable for all countries: what exactly happened, what was done, what went well and what did not work, positive and negative results, achievements and shortcomings, how to prevent such accidents and be better prepared in the future?  Green Cross advocates for the sharing of such lessons to be able to prevent such emergencies from happening again.

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