Old, rusted oil tanks containing gasoline, diesel fuel, and JP-8 jet fuel lie buried throughout the 2.8 million square meters of the US military base in Seoul’s Yongsan district. Tiny cracks are discovered only after they become large holes. In its incident report, US Forces Korea writes, “Ground was saturated with oil at time of discovery. Worn fuel pipe appears to be cause, but not clear when or where leak started. Discharged fuel permeated waterway and flowed into Han River.”
Seoul residents have no idea when an accident has occurred. Recently, Green Korea United (GKU) and other South Korean civic groups submitted an information disclosure request to the US government for details on oil leakage incidents at Yongsan Garrison. The results showed 84 USFK-recorded incidents since 1990. The South Korean Ministry of Environment was notified in just five of the cases. Over those years, Seoul residents have only become aware of the incidents when oil leaking outside the base has been discovered by chance.
In 2001, underground water saturated with oil poured into an underground tunnel at Noksapyeong Metro Station, which faces the Yongsan Garrison. In 2006, pools of oil were found at a subway construction site across the street from Yongsan‘s Camp Kim. In the more than ten years since, Seoul city government has sunk 7 billion won (US$6.1 million) in taxpayer money into cleaning up underground water at the two sites. As a Korean saying puts it, it’s a case of “pouring water into a bottomless jug”: cleaning up the area around the base while the source of the pollution lies unaddressed inside. Last year, carcinogen benzene was found at 587 times the threshold level in front of Noksapyeong Metro Station.
A Seoul Metropolitan Government official collects groundwater from the perimeter of Camp Kim
The situation is much the same wherever US forces are stationed: only the spilled oil can be cleaned up, with no way of knowing the situation inside the base. Oil leaks outside US military bases also occurred in Wonju, Gangwon Province, in 2001, and Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, in 2011. But not all local governments have the means to observe and clean up contaminated area on an ongoing basis like Seoul does. Whether cleanup takes place is often a matter of financial wherewithal and level of attention.
The current situation is one where the buck stops 100% with South Korea when it comes to contamination cleanup costs around US military bases. It’s been especially true over the last ten years or so, when a project has been underway to relocate USFK bases from Yongsan and many other sites nationwide to the areas of Daegu and Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. In 2012, 14.3 billion won (US$12.5 million) was spent to clean up Busan’s Camp Hialeah, which is one-fifth the size of Yongsan Garrison; in 2015, another 13.5 billion won (US$11.8 million) was spent to clean up 40,000 square meters of contaminated ground at Camp Castle in Dongducheon.
“In the past ten years that USFK has been returning bases, it has never acknowledged responsibility or taken measures for contamination,” said Kim Ji-yeon, South Korean chairperson for the South Korea-US environmental subcommittee, in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh.
Experts predict cleanup costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars if Yongsan Garrison is returned in its present state. Over the past decade, taxpayer money from the South Korean government alone for the cleanup of US bases returned in contaminated condition has amounted to 203.8 billion won (US$177.6 million) - and this just for training sites and a base area corresponding to 11% of what the US has pledged to return. Once Yongsan and the remaining sites are returned, South Korea will essentially be forced into a situation of paying close to 1 trillion won (US$870 million) on contamination cleanup costs.
South Korea is also picking up the tab for cleanup around the bases USFK is currently using. Data submitted to Minjoo Party lawmaker Jung Sung-ho by the Ministry of Justice show the South Korean government to have made 6.1 billion won (US$5.3 million) in compensation requests to USFK over the past 15 years for environmental cleanup efforts that were “clearly the US military‘s responsibility,” but received no response. The demand amounts to 75% of the 7.9 billion won (US$6.9 million) in total damages awarded in cases where local governments have filed suit against the state after carrying out a cleanup effort around a US base.
Article XXIII-5 of the South Korea-US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) states that in cases where the US alone is responsible for damages in the course of USFK duties, the “amount awarded or adjudged shall be distributed in the proportion of 25 percent chargeable to the Republic of Korea and 75 percent chargeable to the United States.” Yet USFK also pointed to SOFA Article V-2, which states, “the Republic of Korea will furnish for the duration of this Agreement without cost to the United States and make compensation where appropriate to the owners and suppliers thereof of all facilities.” The Justice Ministry has countered this argument from the USFK by stating that the immunity “does not apply to damages resulting from unlawful facility use” and that both South Korean and the US are obliged to comply with final court rulings.
Over the years, the South Korean government has demanded compensation for US military base environment cleanup efforts through 28 civil claim subcommittee and working-level meetings - demands that have been consistently disregarded by USFK.
“Since these are negotiations between countries, there’s a bit of a problem in that there‘s no way to compel them when the two sides differ,” explained the Justice Ministry.
But attorney Song Ki-ho said the Constitutional Court “ruled in 2001 that SOFA does not give the US military the right to contaminate the environment.”
“There needs to be a more forceful response from the Ministry of Justice, including lawsuits to demand damages from the US military,” Song said.
By Lim Ji-sun, Im In-tack, Cho Il-jun, and Choi Hyun-june, staff reporters
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