By Nam Jong-young
It is February 2002, at a mortuary in the Yongsan U.S. military base in the center of Seoul. Albert L. McFarland, deputy director of the mortuary, orders Kim, a civilian worker attached to the military, to pour 470 bottles of formaldehyde, used for preserving corpses, down the sink. Thus begins the Hangang River formalin discharge incident, which also appeared as the subject of the film, “The Host.”
Incidents of environmental pollution by United States Forces Korea (USFK) such as this were a habitual occurrence. Since the 1990s, in particular, when environmental pollution became a topic of public interest, complaints of environmental pollution in the vicinity of U.S. military bases have become more frequent.
On May 22, environmental group Green Korea stated that known cases of environmental pollution by USFK since 1991 alone numbered 47. USFK has caused an average of two environmental problems a year. The results of analysis by Green Korea show that oil leaks occurred most frequently, with a total of 29 cases. These were followed by seven unauthorized discharges of harmful substances such as formalin, five illegal burials, three incidences of soil pollution, and three “other.”
Most oil leaks involved leaks from pipes supplying various kinds of oil to US military bases, which resulted in pollution of the surrounding area.
The path of expansion and the objects of damage regarding oil leaks are similar to those of the Agent Orange allegedly buried at Camp Carroll in Waegwan-eup, Chilgok County, North Gyeongsang Province in 1978. If not quickly removed, oil seeps down beneath the ground, polluting the surrounding soil and leading to water pollution by contaminating ground water. At Camp Long in Wonju, Gangwon Province, two oil leaks occurred. In 2001, a pipe supplying oil to the base was damaged, leading to contamination of 6700㎡ of land in the neighboring village of Jeolgol. In 2008, oil was discovered in an irrigation canal around 100m from the site of the first accident.
Cleaning soil polluted by oil is a hugely expensive process. In 2001, oil was discovered in a water storage facility near Noksapyeong metro station in Seoul. A one-year investigation confirmed that the oil had leaked from a tank at Yongsan U.S. military base. After filing a claim against the state for damages, Seoul Metropolitan Government, which undertook the cleanup operation, received 2.2 billion won ($2 million).
In March this year, it received a further 650 million won for cleanup expenses incurred in 2009-2010. This is because the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that exists between South Korea and the United States dictates that the South Korean government first provide compensation for environmental damage, before applying to USFK for indemnity.
The reason that pollution habitually occurs at U.S. bases in Korea is that the current SOFA does not require USFK to take responsibility. The military therefore has little incentive to work hard to prevent such pollution. The agreement only contains a proclamation-like article saying that the U.S. military respects the Republic of Korea’s environmental laws and standards. It grants no actual powers of enforcement.
Moreover, because the U.S. military considers itself responsible for cleaning up pollution only where it presents an imminent and substantial danger to health, friction occurs with the South Korean government when it comes to joint investigations into pollution investigation and related expenses.
“The U.S.’s passive stance is due to the inequality of the SOFA,” says Green Korea member Go Ji-sun. “The South Korean government must actively advocate the application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and of South Korean domestic law.”
Meanwhile, Yook Dong-han, a deputy minister at the Prime Minister‘s Office, stated on May 22 at the Central Government Complex on Sejong-ro that Korea and the United States had decided to put together a joint investigation team in the coming days and conduct an investigation both inside Camp Carroll and the surrounding area, and that the U.S. had decided to share environment-related materials on the base with South Koreans.
A separate joint investigation team, composed of experts, government employees from the Ministry of Environment and North Gyeongsang Province, citizens’ representatives and heads of civic groups will enter Camp Carroll on May 23 and conduct a site investigation.
John D. Johnson, commanding general of the U.S. Eighth Army, issued a press release saying that he wanted to reassure the South Korean and American people he was working to protect their health and safety, and that an analysis would be conducted carefully, thoroughly and transparently.
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