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Korean environmental groups sue for U.S. base data

Activists allege pollution at sites being returned to South Korea

CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Two groups have filed a lawsuit against the South Korean Ministry of Environment to gain the release of pollution data from U.S. military bases scheduled to be returned to South Korea.

Green Korea and the Chuncheon Civic Group claim in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that the October 2005 data, some of which was acquired by a Seoul newspaper and debated in the national assembly, is of overriding interest to the nation’s citizens.

U.S. Forces Korea refused to release any environmental data to Stars and Stripes, stating that the status of forces agreement between the United States and South Korea prevents it.

Both the United States and South Korea must consent to the official release of data from the Environmental Subcommittee of the SOFA Joint Committee, USFK spokesman Dave Oten said.

“While some preliminary data has been gathered, information of public interest will only be released by the subcommittee upon mutual agreement of the ROK and USFK representatives using a joint statement,” Oten said. “No such statement is currently planned.”

A report from the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper earlier this year said the leaked data showed unsafe levels of ground and water contamination at several military sites. They include Garry Owen, Greaves, the Kimpo post terminal, Stanton, Edwards, Giant, Page, Falling Water, the Freedom Bridge, Howze and the Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and North Carolina firing ranges.

“It is not understandable that such information is not being disclosed to the Korea National Assembly, as well as Korea’s citizens,” said Green Korea spokeswoman Ko Ji-sun. She said that the cited SOFA provision is absurd and fosters suspicion among South Koreans.

The United States has tried to return closed bases for the past 18 months, but South Korea has declined.

Army officials boil the issue down to two main points: money and sticking to an agreement.

When the base handover agreements were completed by a previous South Korean government, that government agreed to take the land “as is,” including all buildings and infrastructure at no cost, military officials have said.

Further cleanup efforts beyond what the United States already has done should be handled by the South Korean government as “the price of peace,” some Army officials say.

Meanwhile, guarding the empty bases costs America $400,000 each month, USFK officials say.

In an interview earlier this year, USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell told Stripes that the U.S. sought to compromise, offering to remove all underground fuel tanks on all camps and underground water table remediation on five camps. South Korean officials rejected the offer, Bell said.

Meanwhile, South Korean environmental government officials have refused to comment on the leaked data and status of the bases in question.

“We cannot confirm any of things from the study, and I have nothing to say about the issue,” said Seung Su-ho, chief of the military base environment management division for the Ministry of Environment.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.


Local report details problems with bases

Earlier this year, Seoul’s Hankyoreh newspaper said it acquired leaked preliminary data from the Ministry of Environment’s research on U.S. bases to be returned to South Korea. Neither U.S. Forces Korea nor the South Korean government would confirm or deny the findings, which included the following:

  • Lead levels at the Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and North Carolina firing ranges in Area I ranged between 4,990 and 15,200 milligrams per kilogram of soil. If lead leeches into groundwater in high quantity, it can severely damage the brain and kidneys when ingested, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency caps safe drinking water lead levels at .015 milligrams of lead per liter/kilogram of water.
  • Levels of BTEX, a group of four chemicals that make up a large percentage of petroleum products, at Camp Page registered at 1,152 milligrams per kilogram of soil. South Korea’s national standards call for “anti-contamination measures” at 200 milligrams per kilogram of soil. Benzene, one of the chemicals in BTEX, is listed by the EPA as a known carcinogen. The EPA’s maximum permissible level for benzene in drinking water is 5 parts per billion, or .005 milligrams per liter/kilogram.
  • Total petroleum hydrocarbons, which can include several chemicals, also showed elevated levels. Levels at Camp Page registered 50,552 milligrams per kilogram of soil. Camps Howze, Greaves, Stanton and Garry Owen ranged between 20,767 and 47,819 milligrams per kilogram of soil. South Korea’s national standards call for anti-contamination measures at 1,200 milligrams per kilogram of soil, according to Green Korea, which filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government for full release of its base environmental data.

— Erik Slavin

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