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Six Months After Korea's West Coast Oil Spill
Need exists for new effort to stave off a social and ecological disaster
Seung-Hwa Lee (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2008-08-08 19:31 (KST)   
The dunes of Sindurl immediately after the December oil spill.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

The coast line of Mallipo Beach immediately after the December oil spill.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

A horrific collision between a crane and an oil tanker off the coast of Korea's Taean Peninsula last December resulted in over 10,000 tons of crude oil being dumped into ocean just off the coast of one of Asia's most important marine preserves. The striking coastline where pristine waves crashed on rugged rocks was transformed into a sea of oozing black goop.

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The animals and plants of the coast were not the only ones devastated. The residents of Taean have found themselves in a life and death struggle for economic and psychological survival. A dark shadow hangs over their lives and has driven some to despair.

Now that the summer season has returned, there is much talk in the Korean media about the reopening of the beaches and the miracle of the Taean recovery. After all, when over a million people from all over Korea came to help clean the coast of oil in the months after the spill many predicted a quick return to normal. But although the beaches may appear clean, traces of oil can still be found.

The roads once packed with tourists during the summer have little traffic. And the generations of families whose livelihood depended on fishing or tourism wonder what they should do. They watch the bills pile up, getting into unpleasant fights about possible compensation money.

What Happened?

At 7 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2007, about 10 kilometers off the coast of Taean's legendary Malli-po Beach, a storm was brewing. A barge belonging to Samsung Heavy Industries had drifted off course and was floating out to sea. The barge ran into an oil tanker known as the Hebei Spirit (Hong Kong registration) that contained some 146,000 tons of crude oil.

The barge crashed into the Hebei Spirit some nine times, puncturing the tanks repeatedly with its crane. Much of the crude oil was released directly into the ocean and little was done to stop its diffusion in the water in the first 48 hours. A strong northwesterly wind assured that the spilled oil reached the coast within a mere 13 hours.

Some 1,052 kilometers of coast were contaminated with oil. That region includes the entire Taean National Park, 101 islands, all public beaches and some 35,000 hectares of fisheries. The harvesting of mollusks from Taean's mudflats, coastal fishing, over 500 fish hatcheries, the gathering of seaweed and related enterprises involving fishing, aquaculture and mariculture employed some 15 percent of Taean's population (63,957 people according to a 2006 survey).

The implications for the 30,000 residents of the region, many of who have been fishing here for centuries, were catastrophic. Although a declaration was issued announcing six "special disaster zones," there was little done to prepare the citizens for the long-term implications of this spill.

The immediate response of the government was showy: the dispatch of helicopters, warships, rescue boats, vacuum tanker trucks, battalions of fork cranes and high-pressure scrubbing hoses. Then a variety of chemicals for cleaning up oil residue and materials for absorbing spilled oil were applied. Floating fences were installed to stop the spread of the oil and help in the cleanup.

The problem was that the littoral of the Taean peninsula consists of steep cliffs that are downright dangerous to clean and rocky islands that are difficult to approach. The weather made the matter more difficult. Although much was made of the tremendous efforts of citizens from all over Korea to clean the beaches one stone at a time, that contribution covered only the most visible part of the disaster area and gave many the misleading impression that the spill has been cleaned up.

The scale of the accident was enormous and the speed of the spread of oil quite rapid. The implications for the local economy, and the fishing and tourism industries, were not even considered for the first few months. Fishermen watched hopelessly while bills they could not possibly pay piled up in their homes.

Hardest hit were workers who make their living collecting oysters and other shellfish, mending nets and helping out along the coast. These people have no written records of their employment and cannot easily file the claims necessary for compensation. Although efforts have been made to help out such individuals, the situation is quite grave.

Taean had a remarkably diverse marine ecosystem that served as the primary source of income for marine farming enterprises. Five hundred kilometers of protected coast (mudflats, sand dunes, rocky coasts and uninhabited islands) along the Taean Peninsula formed a diverse ecosystem for many rare marine plants and animals.

Taean's spectacular ocean views and hundreds of meandering paths were a great favorite for people from around Korea. Taean also has the only coastal national park that protects vast swaths of both land and sea from development and exploitation.

The Miracle of Taean: 1.5 million Koreans flocked to the coast of Taean to help in the cleanup efforts in the days and weeks after the spill.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

Volunteers, from senior citizens to elementary school students, battled with adverse weather cleaning up the oil slicks.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

Despair Grips Taean's Citizens

The first reports of the massive mobilization of citizens to help clean up the Taean coast gave the impression that cooperative mass action could, through pure will, solve this ecological disaster. Like those who sold their gold jewelry during the International Monetary Fund crisis, or those who poured into the streets to protest the import of American beef, there has been a tendency in Korea to think that the national concern can be overcome by the dedication of individual citizens. But although many spoke of the possibility that Korea as a whole could receive the Nobel Peace Prize for this effort, the real problems were only beginning for the men and women of Taean.

A survey taken in March reveals that some 72.3 percent of Taean's citizens have been gripped by a desire to commit suicide. The reasons for their despair were "uncertainly about livelihood" (85.2%), "declining health" (7%) and "disputes with neighbors and friends" (2.6%). Some 84.8 percent of those engaged in fishing had such impulses whereas only 54.7 percent of those engaged in other businesses had such a response.

Faced with mounting debt, a community altered beyond recognition and no prospects for future employment, several people have already made that decision. Some have set themselves on fire; others have drunk insecticide. The news of their deaths cast a dark shadow over the entire community.

An environmental disaster rapidly became a human catastrophe, in spite of the positive reports and great festivities about the reopening of the beaches this summer. Although stones have been scrubbed clean and sand replaced on beaches, the ecosystem that supported the people of Taean remains seriously damaged.

This trial is hardest for children to bear. Park Hee-eon is a fourth grader from Taean. He no longer hears the familiar sounds of his family and neighbors humming while they harvest oysters. An overwhelming silence haunts him.

Hee-eon remarks, "After school is over, the stench given off by the sea is so terrible I have to put on a mask. My teacher has to give me a ride home past the sand beaches, now turned a dark brown color. In this sort of a miserable environment, I wonder what will become of my family."

Sixty-three students attend clean-scrubbed Soweon Elementary School in Taean City. Most parents have found themselves working all day long in the cleanup efforts along the coast. Moreover, because many parents have had their income drop to zero while waiting for compensation many after-school activities like taekwondo have been cancelled.

The kids are restless, and they sense the low-level tension of their parents. Soweon Elementary School has a smaller branch in the village of Uihang, or "Ant Neck Village," where all the families are essentially unemployed.

©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

Taean citizens clean up oil spill without protective gear.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

And then there are the long-term health risks of the oil spill. The initial ad hoc efforts to clean up the oil resulted in much of the planning being done by those with little, or no, experience. There was little understanding of how toxic crude oil is and sufficient protective equipment was not provided.

There are over 1,000 different chemical substances found in crude oil including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The volatility of these substances is high and they are highly carcinogenic.

Only 23 percent of those involved in the oil cleanup wore the protective masks, gloves and eyewear required to work with crude oil. At best they were provided with rubber gloves as they struggled to remove oil and tar from the rocks.

The same is true for many of the 1.5 million volunteers from around the nation who joined in the effort. Most citizens of Taean involved in the cleanup that I met spoke of the headaches, nausea, vomiting, inflammation of the eyes and skin rashes they suffered as a result of their work.

Gulls coated with oil from the spill.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

Oysters coated with oil from the spill.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

The Need for Scientific Monitoring of Taean's Ecological Recovery

It is essential that we monitor the process of Taean's recovery over the decades to come. Taean is an intertidal zone, with a large range between high and low tide. There is a high risk that contaminants will enter the sedimentation because after the crude oil washes ashore during the flood tide, another layer of sand is washed on top of it, thereby allowing contaminants to accumulate.

The biological impact of tar is not limited to its chemical toxicity. This layer of tar means that coastal sentiment cannot support the microorganisms essential to decomposition. This film effectively suffocates all life on the coastline.

Even if microorganisms, and the entire food chain, reassert themselves eventually, the original ecosystem is never restored. For example, the dominant species in the ecosystem may be permanently altered. The Ministry of the Environment released an official report indicating that the number of aquatic plants off the Taean coast has been halved.

Moreover, indiscriminate and excessive post-spill efforts at containment have a negative impact as well. Oil-coated stones were boiled to remove the oil or cleaned with high-temperature, high-pressure cleaning devices. Although the oil was removed perhaps more efficiently, all the microorganisms that had managed to survive the spill were also killed.

The attempt to remove the oil from the stunning coast along the Taean National Park resulted in the destruction of rock formations, or the indiscriminate covering of the rocky coast with gravel and sand because of the use of earthmoving equipment. Pine trees hundreds of years old were cut down to make roads to the beach more accessible.

©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

An investigation into remaining oil as part of a survey on the current state of the spill.
©2008 Seung-hwa Lee

In Alaska, eighteen years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989), the government still works together with a coalition of residents to conduct long-term ecological monitoring and check whether the fish and birds that disappeared from the region have returned.

The great variety of experience and skills offered by nations of the world to help in this massive cleanup effort should not be squandered in a rush to open up the beaches as soon as possible and sweep the ecological consequences under the rug. The Korean government should support those involved in the critical issue of long term monitoring as a means of restoring the ecosystem.
©2008 OhmyNews

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