Tue, Dec 11, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Seoul accused of slow response to oil spill

AFP , TAEAN, SOUTH KOREA

Waters polluted by crude oil around islands off Taean, about 170km southwest of Seoul, South Korea, are pictured yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

South Korea's worst-ever oil spill spread along a pristine coastal region yesterday as the government came under fire amid charges it acted too slowly to limit the disaster.

Almost 9,000 troops, police and volunteers armed with shovels and buckets struggled to clean up the huge slick. But officials said it would deal a heavy blow to tourism and oyster and abalone farms in the area.

The crude oil had so far hit 160 marine farms out of a total of 445 in the area under threat, said Cho Kyu-sung, an official in Taean County, 90km southwest of Seoul.

"The damage will be enormous if you include long-term environmental expenses," he said.

Some 140 ships and five planes were helping, but the Coast Guard said the slick has already hit 50km of coastline and more oil was expected to come ashore.

Park Myung-jae, home affairs minister, said four townships would be declared a disaster zone, making them eligible for extra help and compensation.

Park vowed immediate aid of 5.9 billion won (US$6.4 million) and said more state funds would be forthcoming soon.

Northwest winds were quickly pushing the slick south along the coast, said Lee Jae-hak of the Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute.

"Damage was bigger than expected because of wrong weather forecasts by the authorities," Lee said.

"High waves and strong winds were the main cause. However, authorities failed fully to take seasonal winds into consideration after booms were set up," he said.

Lee said it may take months or a year to remove oil from the land surface, "but it will take four or five years to remove chemicals and other pollutants."

About 10,500 tonnes of crude oil leaked into the Yellow Sea when a drifting barge carrying a construction crane smashed into an oil tanker on Friday.

The barge's cable to a tugboat had snapped during rough weather before it holed the 147,000 tonne Hong Kong-registered Hebei Spirit in three places.

Officials reported difficulties contacting the tug captain to warn him of the imminent danger.

The captain, for as yet unknown reasons, did not receive a warning radio message about the tanker's presence in the area, said Song Hee-sun, a regional traffic official of the maritime ministry.

Officials then tried to call his mobile phone but when they finally got through, it may have been too late to prevent the collision, Song said.

"He is under questioning by police. So we cannot say whether he is responsible or not," he said.

The leak from the tanker, which was anchored 8km off the coast, was only completely stopped early on Sunday. The oil spill is about twice the size of South Korea's previous worst such case in 1995.

Newspapers alleged a slow response to the disaster, saying no lessons had been learned since then.

"Precious time was lost in preparing seaside communities for the impending ecological disaster," a Korea Herald editorial said.

"Equipment to contain the oil spill was not distributed promptly, leaving villagers helpless as they watched the oil move ashore," it said.

The JoongAng Ilbo said it suspects "authorities tackled the accident in a loafing and idle manner."

Shipbuilder Samsung Heavy Industries, which operated the barge and tug, said the tanker's owner would be able receive a maximum 300 billion won through an insurer to cover damage from the spill.

Samsung was responsible for compensating the owner, a spokesman said.

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