Kunsan noise case plaintiffs win damages
SEOUL — More than 1,800 South Korean residents near Kunsan Air Base will get lump sum payments of either $936 or $1,548 for enduring noise from jet fighters over the last three years, a Seoul judge ruled Tuesday.
It’s the first time a South Korean court has granted residents damages caused by a U.S. military base, said attorney Park Oh-soon, former president of the Korean Environmental Litigation Center. Under the ruling, the South Korean government must pay the damages.
“I’m so happy that this local court admitted those people have been damaged by the U.S. base for a long time,” Park said. “But I can’t be satisfied with the amount of money.”
Capt. Krista Carlos, 8th Fighter Wing and Kunsan Air Base spokeswoman, said the base was not involved in the claim, although when noise complaints are received, they are investigated to ensure no breach of procedure was committed.
The class action suit, filed in May 2002, asked for about 10 times more than the $2.85 million awarded. Although 2,046 Kunsan area residents signed on to the suit, only 1,878 will receive compensation based on noise tests.
Homes were tested according to the Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level (WECPNL) scale. The measurement assesses continuous exposure to long-term noise caused by aircraft.
People whose homes registered less than 80 WECPNLs — less than 70 decibels — received no compensation, said Judge Son Yoon-ha, who made the ruling. Residents who experience higher than 80 WECPNLs are eligible for the lower amount. The highest amount goes to those exposed to more than 90 WECPNLs, he said.
In comparison, normal breathing tests at 10 decibels, according to the League for the Hard of Hearing, and shouting in someone’s ear registers at 110. A jackhammer, air-raid siren and symphony percussion section all test at 130 decibels.
Under South Korean law, both sides may appeal. Park said the residents will appeal the verdict to try to get more money. If the South Korean government also appeals, the case will be sorted out by the Seoul High Court, an appeals court, Park said.
Kunsan Air Base, on the west coast of South Korea, is home to the 8th Fighter Wing, consisting of two F-16 squadrons, and the South Korean 38th Fighter Group, which uses F-5s. The runway is shared with Kunsan International Airport.
Last December, the base opened its gates to local residents, some of whom said their poor impressions were changed by the visit.
Park Yang-kyu, an activist with Green Korea United, said he was pleased with the ruling. The group, which frequently focuses on environmental issues involving the U.S. military, helped fund a noise study in 1999 and gave it to Kunsan city officials, Park Yang-kyu said.
Resident Kim Joong-kon, who is in his mid-50s and has lived near the base all his life, said vibrations from the fighters cause cracks in walls and distract studying students.
Kim said he remembers as a child seeing glass jars shake from the noise, adding that it makes people irritable.
The U.S. Air Force employs various methods to ste1m noise complaints, including using special sound-insulating “hush houses” to conduct engine tests and repairs, Carlos said.
Wing pilots normally fly 175 sorties per week, or about 700 a month, Carlos said. Personnel can’t run jet engines above 85 percent power from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. unless they are in a hush house, Carlos said.
Pilots can’t exceed the speed of sound over land, she said.
“We try to do everything we can to limit the amount of unnecessary noise,” Carlos said.
Late Wednesday, other citizens groups said they were encouraged by the ruling and are moving to file suits of their own. Residents near Pyongtaek and Osan Air Base are expected to file noise lawsuits in the coming days, as are residents near Camp Page, a major U.S. helicopter base in the 2nd Infantry Division area.