Hannam Village residents blast command over mercury-tainted water
May 8, 2007
HANNAM VILLAGE, South Korea — Tempers flared as about 100 Hannam Village housing residents unloaded frustrations with mercury-tainted drinking water during an emergency town hall meeting Sunday.
Yongsan Garrison commander Col. Ronald Stephens hosted a 90-minute meeting to discuss Friday’s announcement that drinking water samples showed higher-than-tolerated levels of mercury at Hannam and the nearby Army Corps of Engineers Far East District Compound.
Residents were warned Friday not to drink the water — or use it for cooking — until additional tests taken Friday could be evaluated Tuesday. On Saturday, the military confirmed the samples were taken on April 6 — nearly a month before they learned about the mercury.
Residents bombarded Stephens and his staff with questions about how long they’ve been drinking contaminated water, whether medical screenings would be offered and whether it was safe to brush one’s teeth.
"I have absolutely zero confidence in our drinking water," said Capt. Mike Hodgin, one of the most vocal at the meeting.
Command representatives said everything possible was being done to ensure residents’ safety.
They said the garrison sends water samples every month to a testing facility on Okinawa and because the April test was routine — there was no need to expedite the process.
Stephens said the mercury levels — .0024 parts per million at Hannam and .0092 at FED — were likely the result of a faulty test or a local contaminant that didn’t affect the rest of the water supply.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the acceptable limits of mercury at .002 ppm; South Korea follows even more stringent standards with the maximum acceptable limit at .001 ppm. Water at Hannam and the FED compound is provided by Seoul city.
Col. Martha Sanders, 18th Medical Command environmental science officer, said that with a .0024 parts per million mercury level, residents would have to drink water for about 70 years before it would cause harm. Still, she advised residents not to drink, cook with, or use the water to brush their teeth.
Sanders said since there is no test for inorganic mercury in a human body, there will be no medical screenings.
One resident said family members had been experiencing stomach cramps, nausea and skin rashes.
Sanders responded that those symptoms were not associated with inorganic mercury, and mercury would instead cause nervous disorders and irritability.
"If you’re going to the bathroom it’s passing out of your body anyway. If you’re not going to the bathroom you’ve got some other sort of problem," she said.
Many residents did not seem reassured.
"It’s not just the water. In the last month we’ve had notices concerning mold and lead-based paint. There’s a stench from the plumbing," said one resident. "Now there’s mercury in the water. We’re being inundated."
Some accused the command of treating Hannam residents like "second-class citizens" when compared to Yongsan Garrison residents.
"How many of the people sitting up there live at Hannam Village?" asked one angry resident about the group of command representatives.
Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Diane Foster said while she didn’t live on Hannam, she sympathized with people whose families have been exposed to safety hazards because she’s a mother herself.
"We understand why you’re frustrated," she said. "Please do not imply that we don’t. We’re not going to run from your frustration."
By the end of the meeting, residents didn’t seem any less aggravated, but the command had made some promises: spigots to replace the 2-inch valves on the 1,000-gallon water trucks being used as an alternate water supply; a filtration system for the housing area’s water; and the results of future water tests posted on the garrison Web site.
Stephens also promised not to fill the Hannam Village pool until the mercury was gone.