January 16, 2008 / 6:37 AM / 10 years ago

South Korean town fights for life after oil spill

TAEAN, South Korea (Reuters) - A month after South Korea’s worst oil spill, blackened west coast beaches have been cleaned by more than 1 million volunteers but residents are struggling to pick up shattered lives.

A volunteer works to remove crude oil spilled from oil tanker Hebei Spirit at a seashore in Taean, about 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Seoul, January 14, 2008. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The fishing industry has died and tourism has dried up. Last week, fisherman Lee Young-kwon killed himself by drinking pesticide in despair over losing his oyster farm.

“Why did you have to die when the people who sprayed black oil on your oyster farm are living and breathing,” Lee’s daughter Nan-sook said at a memorial service this week, where more than 10,000 residents gathered.

Mourners spoke of Lee as a gentle and loving father. They also tried to console each other over livelihoods ruined by the spill and a government response they feel came too slowly and offers too little to help them rebuild.

The coast of the Taean region, about 150 km (95 miles) southwest of Seoul, was covered in crude oil as deep as 10 cm a month ago, when 10,500 metric tons spilled from a Hong Kong-registered tanker that had its hull punctured in a collision with a Samsung Heavy Industries’ seabound crane.

A nature preserve was blackened. The air reeked of sulfur. Volunteers tossed dead birds covered in oil in plastic bags. Tar balls washed up ashore, soaking the fine sand on beaches popular with tourists and then fell to the sea floor.

South Koreans responded to their worst oil spill by forming one of the country’s biggest volunteer movements to remove the oil and scrub the coast.


Conservationists said even though the beaches are now mostly clean, the damage from oil in the seabed will last for years, killing fish, marine plants and plankton.

“The damage is still serious even one month later,” said Lee Bo-ok, a Johnson & Johnson employee who traveled with her colleagues from Seoul to volunteer, using an absorbent cloth to wipe muck off rocks.

Conspicuously absent from the clean-up efforts on Monday were the residents of Taean as they gathered for the memorial service for Lee, leaving the ports, seafood restaurants and stores eerily quiet.

Anger is mounting among the 70,000 residents as they wait for more government help and an apology from the owners of the vessels involved in the spill.

“Does the government think 300 billion won ($320 million) will solve the problem?” said community leader Kim Jin-mook.

That is the value of low-interest loans the government has offered in addition to the 30 billion won in direct payments being made to affected residents.

Yonhap news agency said, due to red tape, it may take more than a year before any compensation is paid to a population mostly made up of fisherman who live day to day from their catch.

Residents say many will likely be wiped out financially before they receive any payments from the government.

“Samsung as the cause of the disaster must bring Taean back to life,” community leader Kim said, in a call for action echoed by thousands present at the service.

Fisherman Chung Nak-chu said: “The ocean is dead so what do we live for now? This was our lifeline for thousands of years that fed our children.”

Additional reporting by Kim Do-gyun and Sim Nara; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Alex Richardson

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