South Korea mobilized thousands of soldiers and civilian volunteers to clean up the worst oil spill in its history, which has blackened beaches, killed fish and birds, and cast a nauseating stench over almost 20 miles of coastline.
The spill began last Friday, when a barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries collided with the Hebei Spirit, a Hong Kong-registed tanker that was anchored five miles off the western coast. The barge, which went adrift in rough surf after the cable linking it to a tugboat snapped, punctured three holes in the tanker's port side, resulting in an estimated 10,800 tons of crude oil spilling into the Yellow Sea.
Despite the efforts of about 100 ships to contain the spill, oil began washing up on the beaches the following morning. Hard hit was Mallipo, an important stopover for migratory birds. Some 7,000 people, among them civil servants, have been deployed to combat the sludge with shovels, buckets, and absorbent mats, the International Herald Tribune reports.
"All day, people have been scrubbing boulders coated with oil and scooping up sand soaked with oil. But now they are retreating because the sea is in high tide again," said Lee Hyun Jin, a resident in Sowon village in Taean. "We feel hopelessly outnumbered."
Kim Eun Young at the nearby Yiwon village said people complained of sick stomachs because of the stench.
"This morning, we found clumps of oil floating like ugly pan-fried cakes. They retreated with the tide and now are coming back again," Kim said. "This is getting worse, and we have 260 villagers out there today with buckets, cans, and whatnot, compared with 57 yesterday."
There has been no official assessment of the economic damaged caused by the spill, which occurred in a region with important tourist sites and seafood farms. The Associated Press reports that about 1 in 16 of the area's 63,800 residents is an aquatic farmer.
"A lot of damage is feared to these farms, although we don't have an estimate yet," [local government official] Lee [Seung-yop] said.
Restaurant owners feared for their livelihoods in an area visited by more than 20 million tourists last year.
"I haven't had any customers since news of the oil spill Friday," said Lee Ok-hwa, who had previously served 200 people a day in her raw fish restaurant.
"I don't know how to make a living," she said. "I don't know how to pay the rent. I believe this situation will last for at least one year."
On Saturday evening, the government declared a state of disaster in the region, Agence France-Presse reports. The country's maritime minister, Kang Moo-Hyun, estimated that the cleanup would take "at least two months."
He told reporters there was serious contamination along 17 to 20 kilometres of coastline, with the oil sludge either glued onto beaches or sinking to the seabed.
"Even if some of the fish and maritime life survive, they wouldn't be marketable for a while," Kang said.
"We will take whatever measures are needed to stop the oil from washing onto the seashore."
It's unknown who is responsible for the disaster. An editorial in the Korea Times, a Korean English-language daily, notes that, two hours before the collision, the local maritime and fisheries office attempted to alert the drifting barge to the nearby tanker, but failed to make radio contact. According to the editorial, the office and Samsung blame each other for the failure.
The oil spill is the worst in Korean history and the worst in the world since 2003, when a Greek-registered tanker ran aground near Karachi, Pakistan and leaked some 8.2 million gallons of crude oil.