U.S. bases blamed for oil-tainted groundwater in S. Korea
By ASHLEY ROWLAND, JON RABIROFF AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 8, 2011
SEOUL — Concerns over pollution in and around U.S. military bases here continue to grow with the revelation this week that South Korea has spent millions of dollars over the past decade removing contaminated groundwater from the area around two bases.
Seoul has spent the equivalent of $3.4 million to remove nearly 2,000 tons of oil-contaminated groundwater since 2001 near U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan and the adjoining Camp Kim, a city official confirmed Wednesday following news reports.
The city believes the oil is coming from separate leaks at the two military installations, said the official, who is part of the city’s Urban Safety Headquarters underground water management team and was in charge of the testing outside the bases.
He said nearly 11,800 square meters of soil near Yongsan and 459 square meters of soil near Camp Kim had been polluted by oil. Tests continue to show oil contamination near the bases, he said, adding that cleanup efforts are ongoing.
The city official said the oil found outside Yongsan and Camp Kim had not contaminated the Han River, which is located a short drive from the bases and is the city’s primary source of drinking water.
Another city official in the same department said the contaminated groundwater has, over the years, been pumped out of the ground and transported by tanker trucks to a wastewater disposal operation in Incheon.
“We’re aware of the news reports of alleged oil-contaminated water in the vicinity of Yongsan Garrison and Camp Kim in Seoul,” Eighth Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Buczkowski said Wednesday. “We will continue to work with our neighbors on any contamination issues in accordance with (status of forces agreement) guidelines. The health and safety of our friends and neighbors is our highest concern, and we take any claims of contamination very seriously.”
Asked if the U.S. military believes its bases are to blame for any oil contamination outside Yongsan or Camp Kim, Buczkowski said the military didn’t have enough information to answer the question.
“We clean up any spills we have on post as they occur and do conduct periodic testing on our fuel tanks, both above and below ground, to detect any possible leakage,” Buczkowski said. “If we do suspect any fuel leaks are contaminating off post we notify the (South Korean) Ministry of the Environment.”
News of the alleged contamination comes amid an investigation into whether American soldiers buried drums containing Agent Orange at Camp Carroll in 1978. Three veterans told a Phoenix television station last month that they now suffer health problems from their exposure to the toxic defoliant, which is known to cause some cancers and birth defects.
South Korea is also investigating whether other chemicals were buried at former U.S. Forces Korea bases that have since been returned to South Korean control.
Seoul officials said the city began investigating an oil leak found at Noksapyeong Station, adjacent to Yongsan, in January 2001. Another leak was found at an electrical facilities building in July 2006 near Camp Kim, a small installation located across the street from Yongsan. Yongsan occupies about 635 acres in the geographic heart of Seoul.
The city officials said there were no potential sources of the oil contamination outside the bases, leading to their conclusion that the base was the source of the leakage.
The city has gone to court and has been reimbursed for part of the cost of the cleanup outside Yongsan by the South Korean federal government which, under SOFA guidelines, is responsible for paying for damages in cases where U.S. Forces Korea is found to be responsible, city officials said.
Lawsuits seeking compensation for additional cleanup efforts around Yongsan and Camp Kim are pending.