Ten years later, contamination still plagues Maehyang Village

Posted on : 2015-08-20 18:38 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Former site of US bombing practice range has still not had an official cleanup to get rib of disintegrating bomb shells
 Aug. 19. (by Hong Yong-deok
Aug. 19. (by Hong Yong-deok

Banners fluttered in the breeze around Maehyang Village on Aug. 19. They advertised an upcoming event to mark the tenth anniversary of the US military’s return of the Gyeonggi Province village’s Kooni firing range to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense on Aug. 20.

Grass was growing on Nong Island and the inland firing range, the bombing having long ago ceased. Ebb tide had brought the waters away from the tidal flat near Nong Island, where visitors fished for gobies.

The return of the firing range in Maehyang, a village in Ujeong township in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, was a rare example of local residents and civic groups successfully convincing the US military to close one of its overseas bombing ranges - a result that came after a tenacious 18-year-long battle that started in 1988. The community also set a precedent for noise pollution lawsuits at military airfields when a four-year court battle ended in 2004 with an award of damages for noise from US bombers.

But the Nong Island tidal flats where US bombs used to rain down have now languished for ten years without any cleanup efforts for heavy metal contamination there.

After the range was closed, the Ministry of National Defense commissioned a 2006 survey of tidal flat contamination by the Korea Environment Corporation. Investigators detected cadmium, lead, and copper and observed strange mutations to cockles, clam, and other shellfish. A “sex differentiation irregularity” was reported in one oyster.

“A 500-meter radius around Nong Island was recently excluded, so the city of Hwaseong allowed fishery rights for the tidal flats,” said Jeon Man-gyu, 60, a former head of the village’s resident countermeasures committee.

“But we have no way of knowing the heavy metal contamination within the 500-meter radius, and there’s still a lot of concern about spreading contamination and unrecovered bombs,” Jeon explained.

Gyeonggi Province and Hwaseong have repeatedly asked the ministry to honor the principle of “polluter pays” by cleaning up land and water contamination. For ten years, the ministry has given no answer on the flats. Fully 99% of remnants from the US firing exercises at the Nong Island tidal flats are clustered within a 500-meter radius.

“The ministry is stonewalling, saying there’s no precedent on paying for contamination cleanup on public waters,” explained a source with the city.

Having determined the contamination must be addressed, the city plans to discuss the matter with relevant organizations before commissioning a cleanup effort around Nong Island next month.

“The US, which is the party basically responsible for the tidal flat contamination, has taken off, and the administration is twiddling its thumbs and leaving the local government to take responsibility,” complained city council member Lee Hong-geun.

Last year, the city of Hwaseong purchased a portion of land from Nong Island and the old inland firing range measuring around 570,000 square-meters or 60% of the roughly 970,000 square-meters returned. Its current plans are to build a peace sculpture park and youth baseball field on the site by 2017.

But residents are demanding the plans for the site’s use be reconsidered, claiming they were left out of the decision-making process after being responsible for bringing about the firing range’s closure.

“Those tidal flats are a lifeline for residents, and the contamination there hasn’t been cleaned up in the past ten years,” said Kim Yeong-cheol, head of the resident countermeasures committee.

“Even the decision on how to use the firing range after the city of Hwaseong purchased it is being handled poorly,” Kim said.


By Hong Yong-deok, south Gyeonggi correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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