SEOUL — The construction problems that delayed the opening of the new Camp Humphreys high school raise questions about the timetable for the relocation of U.S. troops in South Korea.
The reason for the delay — which was announced about a week before school was to begin on Aug. 26 — has not been made public, with teachers, parents and students saying they are still in the dark.
Even the South Korean military agency overseeing the project said it was left out of those discussions.
“We wonder what the problems are,” said a South Korean spokesman for MURO, the Ministry of National Defense-USFK Relocation Office.
Despite multiple requests for information about the delayed opening at the school, U.S. Forces Korea and MURO have each claimed the other is responsible for responding.
The only specific issues identified by MURO were high door frames and sharp desk corners.
However, a source with knowledge of the project told Stars and Stripes that many of the deficiencies — ranging from drains that allow water to run on the kitchen floor to the installation of fire detectors in refrigerators — were caused by translation problems between the U.S. military and the South Korea contractor for the new school.
Additionally, the U.S. military failed to detect some mistakes during a pre-construction review of Samsung C&T Corp.’s design plans.
While there were additional flaws that the source did not divulge, the disclosure marks the first time that any specific problems plaguing the high school have been identified.
Either way, the problems were severe enough that school staff were forced to set up shop at another site.
No date has been announced for when the new school may be ready to open.
The postponement of the high school’s opening is the latest delay in USFK’s beleaguered expansion of Humphreys, which will eventually replace U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul as USFK’s flagship installation on the peninsula. Humphreys’ population is expected to swell from 7,000 to 44,000 in the coming years, according to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.
The relocation, originally scheduled to take place in 2008, was delayed until 2012, then again to 2016.
Military officials insist no further postponements are in sight. As of May, 53 percent of the expansion had been completed.
Key to the relocation plan is the opening of new schools and other infrastructure at Humphreys that will allow troops and their families to live there.
The new Humphreys Central Elementary School opened on time last month, though just barely. Samsung turned the school over to U.S. control on Aug. 8, two months behind schedule.
Then, on Aug. 16, the Department of Defense Education Activity announced that the high school would not open on time, giving teachers just five work days to move into the base’s old elementary school. School staff, parents and other volunteers racing through the final pre-school weekend to prepare temporary classrooms.
Students were given maps to navigate the cluster of four buildings and are using toilets and sinks made for smaller kids. Lockers were set up in empty classrooms.
While DODEA has said the high school may not be ready for occupancy until the middle of the school year, the source said it could be turned over to the U.S. as early as October.
The most serious of the school’s construction problems, according to the source, was the installation of a Korean-style drainage system in the kitchen, which allows open water to run on the floor into a drain. Such a system is considered a safety hazard in the U.S.
While authorities who inspected the high school said the building met Korean building codes, the drain was one of many features that did not meet the U.S. standards that Samsung was required to adhere to.
The high school — one of the first major building projects in the Humphreys expansion — marked a “steep learning curve” for the company, the source said.
It also marked a learning curve for U.S. and South Korean militaries and construction officials, forced to work together closely on a project that straddled two cultures and two sets of government regulations and procedures, as well as the language barrier.
For weeks, U.S and South Korean officials wrangled over which country would foot the bill for several thousand dollars’ worth of leg extensions that raise the height of cafeteria equipment such as tables and chairs. South Koreans argued it wasn’t their responsibility because the extensions were identified in a catalog as “accessories.” The U.S. ultimately succeeded in convincing them that the extensions were covered by the contract.
The source noted that Samsung is still within its contractually prescribed window for finishing the high school and is not late in completing the project. Authorities had pushed for an earlier date in hopes of opening in time for the current school year, though many expressed doubts during the building process that it would happen.
The source was also optimistic that the Humphreys expansion would be finished by 2016, as currently planned. The source said 98 percent of fill work on the base grounds has been completed, and major facility construction efforts will begin early next year.
Tracking costs difficult
However, the delayed opening of the high school echoes warnings by the Senate Armed Forces Committee that relying so much on Korean contractors — and taking out congressional oversight of the contracting process — could be troublesome.
An April report from the committee criticized a lack of U.S. oversight of South Korean-funded construction projects, and noted that most current or planned construction projects for USFK are funded by South Korea, with no congressional authorization required.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides South Korea with a list of acceptable contractors, the MND ultimately selects contractors for each project, the report said.
USFK tracks construction costs with documents provided by the MND. But when the Senate committee tried to review such documents for South Korean-in kind projects, it found they were in Korean.
The Senate report noted further problems: “It is also unclear whether the documents are complete contracts as the overwhelming majority of them are only a few pages long despite being for millions of dollars’ worth of construction. USFK staff reports that they do not translate the documents but only extract cost figures from them to track construction costs.”
Meanwhile, USFK and MURO are each claiming the other is responsible for providing information about the high school’s problems. DODEA claims it, too, cannot respond.
According to USFK, only MURO can answer such questions because the construction contract falls under its purview. However, a MURO spokesman denied there is any legal reason or agreement preventing USFK from releasing information about the project. He said his office could only answer questions after consulting with USFK.
When asked by Stars and Stripes to provide a tour of the high school, both the U.S. military and MURO declined, each saying the other was in charge of the facility.
The Humphreys relocation project is politically sensitive here because it is partially funded by South Korea.
Even the $81.3 million price tag for the high school and elementary school was initially kept under wraps by both USFK and MURO last spring. MURO officials feared disclosing the costs would anger the public since the buildings were constructed to expensive U.S. standards.
“We don’t tell the media or anybody about it,” a MURO spokesman said in May. “People may not understand (the high cost of the Humphreys schools) since there are cultural differences.”