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[News Focus] Who should pay for cleanup of former US military bases?

Koreans criticize their government’s decision to pay now, negotiate later

Under a joint plan in 2003 to relocate most of the US military bases in South Korea to a sprawling military complex south of Seoul, dozens of sites around the country are being vacated after being occupied by US troops for decades.

But the transfer process has been drawn out as a result of disputes over who should shoulder the costs of cleaning up the contaminated soil and other environmental pollution the US military left behind. 

Protesters hold placards reading
Protesters hold placards reading "(To the US) cleanup the environmental pollution and return the military base," in front of the Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

When the US returned four bases to Korea last week, the environmental issue was reignited as Seoul announced it would clean up the sites first and ask the US to reimburse the costs later.

With disagreements over how much pollution remains at those sites and the extent of its impact on human health, factors that must be taken into consideration when determining responsibility for the decontamination procedures, there are concerns that Korea will end up paying for the cleanup of the sites that have not yet been returned -- just as it did for 25 other sites.

Metal, oil and toxic chemicals

On Wednesday, US Forces Korea returned Camp Eagle and Camp Long in Wonju, Gangwon Province; parcels of Camp Market in Bupyeong, Incheon; and the Shea Range parcel located at Camp Hovey in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province.

The land and groundwater at the military bases, vacant since October 2011, have been found to be contaminated with metal, oil and toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and xylene.

In November 2018, a joint working group made up of representatives of both countries announced that parts of Camp Market were polluted with dioxin, a highly toxic chemical compound that can cause cancer.

The Environment Ministry estimates the cleanup costs at about 110 billion won ($93.9 million) -- 77.3 billion won for Area A and 7.5 billion won for Area B of Camp Market; 20 billion won for Camp Long; 7.2 billion won for Camp Hovey; and 2 billion won for Camp Eagle.

When the decontamination procedures take place, the actual costs may differ from the estimates, a ministry official said.

The government is asking the US to foot the bill for the cleanup, but the US maintains it has no obligation to do so, citing Article 4 of the 1966 Status of Forces Agreement. The article stipulates that the US government has no obligation to restore the area to the condition it was in before its occupation, nor must it compensate Korea for the changes.

However, the first supplementary memorandum to SOFA addressing the environmental issue, inked in 2001, states that the US will remedy any contamination that poses “known, imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.”

The memorandum did not specify standards for measuring the danger from the pollution or clearly spell out the responsibilities of either country.

In 2013, the US Department of Defense revised its own regulations, replacing the term “known, imminent and substantial endangerment” with the term “substantial impact,” and defined it as “a level of exposure that is occurring, or is about to occur within the next 3 to 5 years, and exceeds a generally established, published, and applied federal standard in the US.”

“To determine if a substantial impact exists, a scientific assessment that evaluates the levels of environmental contamination present at a location and whether there is a pathway of exposure, is required,” Col. Lee Peters, USFK spokesperson, told The Korea Herald.

Korea assesses chemicals to have a harmful impact on human health if there is one cancer case among 10,000 people exposed to the polluted environment for about 25 years.

Hope for future negotiations?

Defending its decision as a way to secure the early return of the four military sites, the government said it had succeeded in keeping the US at the negotiation table -- unlike in the past, when Korea paid for the cleanup of former military bases on its own. Further delay would only worsen the pollution over time and would also impede development of the areas, the government said in announcing the return last week.

Yongsan Garrison in Seoul (Yonhap)
Yongsan Garrison in Seoul (Yonhap)

USFK told The Korea Herald that it takes environmental protection very seriously and sees aggressive environmental response measures as necessary for public safety. But it strictly upholds Article 4 of SOFA, the USFK spokesperson said.

“The Republic of Korea and the United States will continue to cooperate and consult closely and transparently to address public and civil concerns,” Peters said.

Skepticism persists among opposition lawmakers and environmental activists here, who view the US as having the upper hand in a protracted dispute that has continued for almost two decades.

“The government failed to negotiate any kind of regulatory change and received the polluted military sites without making the US take any responsibility for the pollution,” Green Korea United said in a statement Thursday.

According to Foreign Ministry officials, the US has never assumed responsibility for similar environmental cleanups at any of its overseas military sites.

The dispute is likely to be a major factor in slowing down the return of the remaining 22 sites, which include Yongsan Garrison, the former USFK headquarters in central Seoul.

In 2001 and 2006, it was revealed that oil had leaked into the groundwater at the Yongsan base, but the state of the environment has not improved much since then, according to an assessment carried out by the Seoul Metropolitan Government last year.

The Yongsan base has not yet been completely vacated, but Korea and the US said they had initiated the return process to prevent any further delays in the city’s plans to turn it into a park. The plans were announced in 2005.

The procedure to return Yongsan Garrison has just started and the necessary tests, decontamination procedures and consultations are expected to take time. “It cannot be completed in one to two years. It will take a long time,” Korea’s military official in charge of US military base relocation told The Korea Herald.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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