Jurisdiction at issue as Army officer who oversaw formaldehyde disposal sentenced
SEOUL — A South Korean judge sentenced the U.S. Army’s mortuary affairs officer in absentia Friday to six months in prison for improperly ordering the disposal of formaldehyde down a sink drain nearly four years ago.
However, U.S. Forces Korea maintained Friday it had jurisdiction in the case because the offense occurred during duty hours as detailed in the U.S.-South Korea status of forces agreement. USFK maintained he won’t go to jail.
Albert McFarland, 57, was charged with violating a water-quality law for ordering two morgue employees in February 2000 to pour out about 192 bottles containing 16 ounces each of the embalming chemical. The fluid eventually flowed through sewage treatment systems into the Han River, the main source of drinking water for Seoul’s 12 million people.
Environmental activists in the courtroom clapped Friday after Judge Kim Chae-hwan read the sentence following a 30-minute recap of the case. McFarland, contacted at his office Friday, declined to comment. Efforts to reach his South Korean lawyer were unsuccessful.
“I’m sure McFarland is fully aware of what is going on in this courtroom,” Kim said in his ruling. “He intentionally did not show up, and he kept giving us his own excuses while he did not express any remorse.”
The sentence far exceeded the $4,300 fine sought by prosecutors during a Dec. 19 hearing. It was unclear Friday if South Korean officials planned to attempt to arrest McFarland. In a written statement, USFK said a detention warrant is “inappropriate in this instance.”
Originally, one of the employees ordered to dump the chemical complained to a local environmental group, Green Korea United. The case ignited fevered protests outside U.S. bases, with nongovernmental groups charging that the U.S. military doesn’t follow environmental rules. U.S. officials apologized, pledging stronger environmental safeguards.
The sentence also caps off nearly four years of protests and jurisdictional disputes involving the SOFA, the code of rules that governs how U.S. forces are treated in South Korea.
“This brought us a very meaningful instance in that Korea shows it can have primary jurisdiction apart from what the U.S. military has asserted,” said Kim Pan-tae of the People’s Action for Reform of Unjust ROK-US SOFA Agreement at a news conference after the ruling.
“By giving him (McFarland) jail time which exceeds the prosecutor’s recommendation, Korea has regained its sovereignty and pride,” he said.
USFK said Friday that McFarland received administrative punishment, but specifics could not be released. McFarland was promoted in June 2001 from deputy of Mortuary Affairs to the unit’s officer, the military said in a statement. McFarland was also named a civilian manager of the year last year.
South Korean officials repeatedly tried to deliver a summons to Yongsan Garrison and to McFarland’s off-post home to no avail, Kim said. Prosecutors recommended a $4,300 fine in March 2001 for the offense.
McFarland paid the fine, but a Seoul judge rejected it about a month later, saying the case should go to trial. The money has not been returned. Civic groups demanded McFarland face trial and the case stalled for about two years with little official action.
After the dumping, USFK and South Korean officials concluded the embalming fluid was significantly diluted with other wastewater and posed no health threat. When the chemical reached the river, its concentration was less than the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the military said.
Activists on Friday disputed that finding.
“I suppose the punishment is a bit too light when we think that the amount of the toxic material could have killed more than 7,000 people,” said Hong Kun-soo, head of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea.