At Yongsan US military base, ground pollutants 500 times normal levels

Posted on : 2016-12-26 16:32 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Grounds still contaminated despite cleanup efforts, and results of three environmental surveys have not been made public
Members of civic groups hold a press conference in front of the Yongsan US military base in Seoul
Members of civic groups hold a press conference in front of the Yongsan US military base in Seoul

Levels of benzene, total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), and other contaminants were detected at over 500 times the standard in underground water around Yongsan Garrison.

Despite Seoul Metropolitan Government spending over 500 million won (US$419,800) a year since 2004 to clean it up, contaminated underground water continues to be found each year as the inability to investigate inside the base prevents elimination of the source. The city and environment groups are now demanding that the Ministry of Environment make public the results of its three surveys of the base’s interior.

Seoul government announced on Dec. 19 that benzene and TPH had been detected at concentrations more than 500 times the purification standard around the Noksapyeong subway station and Camp Kim (the interior base between Namyeong and Samgakji Stations). The city government requested a survey between Mar. 4 and Dec. 16 by the Korea Rural Community Corporation (KRC), which found benzene levels as high as 8.811㎎/ℓ in underground water around Noksapyeong Station - over 587 times the standard level of 0.015 ㎎/ℓ. Near Camp Kim, TPH were detected at levels as high as 768.7 ㎎/ℓ, or 512 times the standard level of 1.5 ㎎/ℓ.

Contaminants like benzene near Noksapyeong Station and TPH near Camp Kim have been found at hundreds to thousands times the standard every year around Yongsan Garrison. Since 2004, Seoul government has worked to clean them up by pumping up underground water - but the inability to eliminate the source within the base has led to continued contaminant detection on an annual basis. In a suit claiming damages the government, the city received back 7.2 billion won (US$6 million) it had spent on cleanup efforts through 2014. The current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US prevents US Forces Korea from being held responsible for environmental pollution.

The city and environment groups urged the government to make public the findings of its internal surveys of USFK bases and formulate its own cleanup plan.

“We recently visited the Ministry of Environment to ask for findings from the base survey and follow-up measures, but there has been no response,” said Jeong Yeong-hwan, chief officer from the city’s water circulation safety bureau. “With the base’s return [to South Korea] scheduled for the end of next year, there need to be plans for fixing the contamination source and managing the land, but the Environment Ministry has been stonewalling.”

The Ministry of Environment commissioned three studies of contamination within Yongsan Garrison by the Korea Environment Corporation between May 2015 and Aug. 2016, but has yet to release the findings. An information disclosure request by the Hankyoreh early this month was met with a response declaring that the findings would not be released.

On Dec. 14, Seoul High Court upheld a first trial ruling siding with the groups Green Korea United and MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society in their suit to demand the overturning of the Minister of Environment’s refusal to disclose the findings of the Yongsan Garrison surveys.

“The very process of issues like pollution of land at the US military base in Yongsan being subjected to public discussion could contribute in practical terms to reaching a productive conclusion that benefits the national interest,” the court concluded.

By Choi Woo-ri, staff reporter

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