Sopping up South Korea's worst oil spill

As locals, volunteers, and soldiers continue to clean a week after a 10,000-ton spill, some wonder if a faster government response could have mitigated the disaster.

Fisherman Park San-kil hefts the handles of a wheelbarrow filled with oysters poisoned by heavy fuel oil. Neither soldiers nor volunteers, Mr. Park says, have arrived to sop up the thick black goo carried by twice-daily tides into the inlet from which he's made a living for most of his 55 years.

"We think the government is moving very slowly," he says. "Only neighbors are here helping each other."

Even as thousands of soldiers and volunteers swarm over the once popular beaches soaking up the oil from the spill, officials say they've hardly begun the daunting task of cleaning up the oil around rocky outcroppings, islands, and coastline of this ecologically rich region of forests, fish farms, and swampland about 95 miles southwest of Seoul on the Yellow Sea.

"They came too late," Park says, "so pollution spreads."

While fighting the spread of the oil, though, authorities face the constant question of whether it's better to sop up oil by hand, soaking it up with thick towels, or to use heavy equipment. And, out at sea, the question is whether to try to disperse it with chemicals dropped from aircraft or try to stop it with sea fences that often seem too short and porous.

But to Korean environmental activists, the indecision seems almost beside the point. Ma Yong-un, international director of the Korean Federation for the Environmental Movement, says the government lacks not only fences but basic equipment for volunteers, including enough boots, gloves, and face masks to ward off the powerful stench that inundates the shoreline.

"They are slow to respond," says Mr. Ma, whose nongovernmental organization has long been critical of what it views as the government's slow response to disasters.

The government's worst offense, Ma says, was its failure to develop and act on a plan after the last major oil spill, when a tanker spilled about 5,000 tons of oil off the southern city of Yeosu in July 1995. "They are not well prepared. They did have the opportunity to learn 12 years ago, but they did not."

In the meantime, says Hong Sung-bei, on the emergency team of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, "we are asking for more equipment" and, as the wind and currents spread the oil along the coast, "we are asking for more available resources from abroad, especially aircraft to prevent more emergency situations."

It was one week ago, on Dec. 7, that a crane-carrying barge broke loose in high winds from the tug to which it was attached and drifted into the 146,000-ton supertanker Hebei Spirit, which was about to start unloading its oil to small vessels five miles offshore. More than 10,000 tons of oil poured out of the tanker, creating a disaster that is increasing in scope while authorities remain confused about what to do.

"We have asked the US Coast Guard to investigate," says Mr. Hong, who is on the team that oversees the recovery operation along 30 miles of shoreline, much of it a national park that normally draws several million tourists a year. "We are going to investigate the environment. We need some more time to carry out long-term plans."

A drive along the roads by the shoreline reveals the immensity of the remaining effort. Black slime shines on rocky islets that are either impossible or dangerous to reach.

"It will take more than 10 years," says Son Doo-ik, a mechanical engineer with the Environment Ministry's occupational safety and health agency. "It's easy to clean the beaches, but the rocks are very difficult. Fishing is finished."

At this nearby village, below a dune sloping down to a rocky shore and near where Park pulls in his ruined catch, an elderly woman wails in despair. "Maybe after a few days, the Army and the Coast Guard will come here," she says. "Maybe in three or five years, we will be fishing again."

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