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South Korea: Understanding the Oil Spill From Painful Experience

By Lee Yoo Eun

As the BP oil spill disaster in the United States is reported in South Korea, numerous Korean bloggers, for whom painful memories of the deadliest oil spill in Korean history in 2007 remains fresh, are expressing their worries and sympathy to the oil spill victims.

In December 2007, 2.7 million gallons of crude oil gushed into Korea's scenic west sea near the Port of Daesan on the Yellow Sea coast of Taean County after a crane barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries slammed into the Hebei Spirit, a Hong Kong-registered crude oil carrier, spotting Korea's west coast with jet black crude oil.

Photos from a blogger who participated in the clean up process as a volunteer.

Around 120 million people from different social backgrounds volunteered in the West Sea shore clean-up process which lasted for several months. Celebrities, politicians and professionals from various fields scrubbed stones covered in oil by hand, one-by-one, using absorbent materials to soak up the remaining oil.


A volunteer of the Taean clean-up process reported on her blog the mild distress she suffered during the clean-up work and following days due to the strong smell of the oil:

기름을 닦아내도 바닷물이 들어오면 다시 엉망이 되고마는
태안. 기름 냄새에 속이 울렁거리고 머리가 지끈거린다…집에 돌아온 지금도 온 몸이 으실으실하고 속이 메스겁다.

Even after we scrubbed off the oil, Taean turned into a mess again when the water came in. The smell of the oil gave me nausea and headaches… Even after I returned to my house,
I still felt malaise and nausea.

Even though the Korean government dispatched hundreds of vessels, cranes, helicopters and airplane to the west coast, most of the clean-up process had to rely on people's hands as the oil permeated deep and wide into the shore's complicated landscape, hiding itself in the sand and millions of rocks laying there.

A blogger on his Daum blog noted that the BP oil spill clean-up process might speed up if more manpower and financial support are injected to the process, at the same time expressing envy of the US' high-end cleanup equipment:

부자 나라답게 장비도 고급이고 대량으로 투입하기 때문에 방제작업을 의외로 싱겁게 끝날지도 모르겠습니다. 앞서도 언급했지만 손으로 일일이 닦아 내던 우리의 현실이 겹쳐집니다. …이버 서태를 대비해서 Oil pollution trust fund(기금)을 조성하여…1건당 사용 가능한 금액은 US$ 1bn (1억 달러)인데 이번 사고를 처리하기에는 턱 없이 적다는 생각이 듭니다. 우리나라처럼 자원봉사자가 많으면 모르겠지만.

Since the US is a rich country, lots of high quality equipment has been deployed at the scene in large amounts. There is a chance that the clean-up operation may prove to be much easier than people expected. This is quite contrary to our case of scrubbing oil off with our hands, one by one (from oil-inflicted objects)… The US has formed the Oil pollution trust fund…with a spending cap (of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund) for each incident at $1 billion. This is way too small since there is no large group of volunteer workers in the United States like we had in Korea.

Local media reported that the Taean oil leak was only two-thirds the amount of oil that spews from the BP oil pipe on a single day. And it was one-third of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Nevertheless it was deadly enough to kill marine life in one of Korea's largest wetland areas, damaging the fishing industry and 445 sea farms, and the tourism industry by tainting a national maritime park, thereby wrecking people's livelihoods. Samsung, one of biggest multinational conglomerate corporations in Korea, had been blamed for causing the disaster for letting its barge go wild with loose cables linking it to the tug. As the oil spill case in Mexico Gulf appeared, Koreans came to recall that Samsung Heavy Industries got off with a relatively light punishment.

A Naver blogger expresses a unpleasant feeling toward governments and companies' shirking their responsibilities:

지난 2007년 겨울 한국에서 발생했던 서해 태안 기름 유출
사건을 연상케 합니다…우리는 지난 태안 기름 유출 사건때 수많은 자원봉사자들의 덕에 빠르게 정상화를 찾아갔던 기억이 있습니다… 미국 정부도 이번 사건의 늑장대응에 대한 책임을 피하기는 쉽지 않을 것 같습니다. 열심히 BP에 모든
책임을 떠넘기고 있군요. 한국에서 태안 기름 유출을 일으킨 삼성 중공업이 고작 56억원의 손해 배상 책임을 판결 받은 것을 기억하니 무지하게 씁쓸합니다.

This [BP oil spill] reminds me of the Taean oil spill in winter 2007 in Korea. We made a fast recovery thanks to help of numerous volunteer workers…It seems it will be hard for the US government to wiggle its way out of the criticism on its belated response to this incident. Now the government tries to dump all responsibility onto BP. This reminds me of the Samsung Heavy Industries' Taean oil spill liability verdict, where Samsung got away with a penalty of only 5.6 billion Korean won [about USD 4.6 million]. All this makes me feel/taste bitter.

With its compensation cap limited to 5.6 billion Korean won, Samsung was fined only 30 million Korean won, or about USD 22,000.

Some blogger are approaching this issue from a realistic angle. One Naver blogger have posted speculation on affect the BP oil disaster will have on oil prices, himself predicting that it will surpass USD 100 dollar a barrel soon in this year.

Another OhMyNews blogger stressed the urgent need to seek a fundamental way to stop oil disasters from recurring:

궁극적으로 전세게가 하루빨리 원유 의존에서 벗어나 친환경 에너지로 하루빨리 바꿔야 하겠습니다…우리 모두 같은 지구촌 사람인이상 남의 일이 아닙니다.

The world needs to shift from its heavy dependency on the oil to eco-friendly energy use as early as possible…We all belong to the same earth, this is not the other's matter any more.

Koreans, after being burnt from their oil spill disaster, have expressed their sincere worries over the the endless spewing of the oil in the United States and the aftermath it will bring on a global level.

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