'Water Shocks' Rouse South Korea

Drinking-water contamination by industrial polluters spurs growing environmental concern

FOR 30 years, South Korea has tried to be a model of how a poor nation can rush pell-mell to industrialization. The motto: "Growth first." But for three years in a row, South Koreans have been hit with three different "water shocks," frightening revelations of pollutants coming out of their faucets.

The South Korean economic model is now being remodeled, perhaps to the benefit of other developing countries following in its wake.

The latest shock made many Koreans gag, literally. An electronics factory owned by the Doosan Group, located upstream of 10 million people and a wild-bird sanctuary on the Naktong River, allegedly dumped some 30 tons of a dangerous chemical, phenol, in mid-March. The phenol is used to make most of the nation's electronic circuit boards.

The plant had been dumping smaller amounts of phenol for several months, but the release two months ago was so massive that the obnoxious odor was strong enough in the tap water to compel a public outcry.

"The overwhelming smell was very fortunate for us," says Park Won Hoon, director of environment research at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology. "It warned everyone not to drink the water."

Fifteen Doosan factory managers and local government inspectors were arrested. The company chairman resigned. The environment minister was sacked. And a consumer boycott was organized against Doosan products, which include South Korea's leading beer.

The plant was ordered shut for a month, but was allowed to reopen after 15 days because of high demand for Doosan electrical products. Then another, smaller phenol spill took place at the plant, heightening public suspicion of industry and the government.

"Korea lacks any planning for the high risks to the environment from its industry," says Yong Chung, director for environmental research at Yonsei University. "By this accident we may change."

The two previous "water shocks" came as a result of reports in Korean newspapers, which had been given increased freedom after democratic reforms in 1987.

In 1989, abnormally high concentrations of dangerous heavy metals, such as chromium and lead, were reported in the Han River that runs through Seoul, home to one-fourth of South Korea's population. The most likely source of the metals was industrial waste water, which has been increasing by about 20 percent a year, with one-third of that volume dumped raw into Korean waters.

Then in 1990, high levels of a harmful byproduct of sewage organics and chlorine, called trihalomethane, were also reported in the city's drinking water. That shock forced officials to start analyzing water quality daily instead of monthly.

Last year, the environment bureau was upgraded to a ministry. After the phenol incident, the environment minister no longer sits in a back corner at Cabinet meetings.

Public awareness of the environment was also heightened last year after a violent protest forced the government to shelve a plan to build a nuclear-waste disposal facility on a small island southwest of Seoul. That led to the firing of the minister for science and technology.

"These incidents would likely have been forgotten before," says Kim Hae Jung of the Korea Anti-Pollution Movement Association. "But the phenol discharge may have awakened people."

And the consumer boycott of Doosan, which had $2.9 billion in sales last year, may have awakened Korea's big-business conglomerates, known as chaebols. "The boycott scared industry," says Han Sang Wook, an assistant environment minister. "They are becoming well aware of the need to do something on the environment."

So far, the number and size of Korean environmental groups are quite small compared to those in Europe or the United States. "But the attitude of the people has changed," says Dr. Park. "Older Koreans knew about hunger and supported economic growth as a priority. But younger Koreans want quality of life."

South Korea spends an estimated 0.13 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on environmental protection, far smaller than the 0.34 percent in Japan, 0.57 percent in the US, and 1.69 percent in Sweden (the highest).

To help pay for new investment, the government is proposing a tax on regular polluters, including hotels and department stores. If approved by the legislature, much of the tax revenue will go toward building treatment plants, with the goal of raising the level of treated sewage from 31 to 65 percent by 1995.

Last year, the government collected more than $14 million in fines from industries that violated pollution standards. But many companies would rather pay fines than make the costly investments needed to curb toxic effluents. In February, the fines were raised for industries caught violating standards. And a law has been approved for criminal penalties against polluters, with the worst penalty being life in prison.

In January, the Ministry of Environment warned industry that it will slowly begin to toughen pollution standards by the year 2000, starting in 1993.

"Higher pollution fines won't solve the problems. Industry needs a different attitude," says Dr. Han. "Some industries, of course, will lose their international competitiveness by investing in pollution controls. But in the 21st century, export industries will be forced to meet environmental standards of the world."

The ministry expects investments in cleanup technology to rise three-fold this year, from $420 million last year. "If you look at Korea, you see what will happen in China and other developing countries in the future," adds Han.

In just 30 years, South Korea has almost matched the economic growth that took 200 years in the West. Its per capita GNP rose from from $82 in 1960 to $5,500 last year. Its population more than doubled to 42 million.

"All this happened in such a short period that we brought harm to ourselves," Han said. "The government was not efficient in taking environmental action. And the people didn't know they were victims."

In fact, one of the worst forms of pollution in Seoul is the use of anthracite coal briquettes to heat homes in winter. About eight million tons are burned each year, accounting for 60 percent of the air pollution. The resulting ash accounts for 40 percent of the city's solid waste.

Many Western and Japanese investors put factories in nations such as South Korea to escape tough environmental standards at home. "It will be different in the future," says Han. "Korea set an example for rapid economic growth. I hope we can do the same for the environment."

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