[EDITORIALS]Mining and its aftermath

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[EDITORIALS]Mining and its aftermath

The pollution of drinking water reservoirs in Gangwon and North Gyeongsang provinces from wastewater and mineral dregs leached out of closed mines in the region is another unforeseen but preventable calamity stemming from the recent typhoon and torrential rains. Government authorities should immediately get to the bottom of the latest disaster in order to lessen the fallout of heavy metal pollutants spreading more widely through the nation.

The rains triggered the leakage, but the mines were left unchecked and slag containment steps were slipshod. In the 1980s, small, poor mining firms shut down without sealing the mine heads. The authorities have no specific data on just how many of the several hundred mines in the country were shut down like that. The ground zero of the leakage -- the Geumjeong Mine in Bongwha, North Gyeongsang province -- closed in 1997 with government help, but 300,000 cubic meters of slag was left exposed to erosion from rain. Rivers and streams in former mine areas are polluted, either rusty or chalky in color; these waterways tell us of the poor post-closure management of mines.

The slow response of the authorities worsened the devastation. The Geumjeong Mine's foundation started to erode in early August because of heavy rainfall, but obviously the authorities did not think that things could get any worse -- until, of course, they met Typhoon Rusa. The local government did nothing for 10 days after the typhoon passed, citing a lack of funds, and shifted the burden of responsibility to the central government. Central government agencies are busy tossing the hot potato to each other, and a damage assessment study has yet to be completed.

Among pollutants that the wastewater carries are heavy metals such as cadmium, which drove Japan into an itai itai disease problem some decades ago. Pollutants such as cadmium, lead and zinc have been previously detected in the soil and farm produce of the regions where mines had been closed. The government should use the recent calamity as an opportunity to step up its assessment and control of pollutants leaking from the closed mines.
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