For one couple, a clean river is the top priorityOn top of the 12-ton “cleaning barge” floating in the middle of the Taewha River in Ulsan, a man in his 50s operates a crane that is attempting to lift a discarded net. But the net, which had been stuck in the river bed, rips apart with a loud noise when the crane tries to lift it clear of the water.
“We have to fasten it again,” cries a woman next to the man as she quickly separates the ripped remnants of the net. After 40 minutes and seven further attempts, the net is finally freed and dropped into the barge’s open hold.
The woman collapses as if she has run out of strength. She doesn’t think about wiping off her face and clothes, which are covered with dark, smelly chunks of mud.
The couple, Sim Sang-guk and Kim Sun-i, have been active in cleaning up a 17.2-kilometer stretch of the Taewha River near the Hoeya Dam for the last 17 years. The amount of waste they have removed during that time would have filled 1,000 five-ton trucks.
Starting in March, the two increased their time working on the river: every Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. they gather all sorts of trash from the river and stack it in the barge.
However, they are not senior citizens on a social welfare project. Mr. Sim is the chief excutive officer of a mid-sized shipping company, Mi-do Shipping, which has 70 employees. But for Mr. Sim, cleaning comes first.
“Over the past 10 years, I have visited my company once or twice a week. Sometimes I go late at night after my volunteer work. After I implemented a system that provides incentives according to how much an employee contributes, the employees started to take care of my company responsibly, without any need for me to delegate and supervise,” he said.
The costs of the cleaning operation, which amounts to tens of millions of won, were met entirely through private funding for the first 12 years. Mr. Sim had a barge constructed exclusively for the cleaning project that cost 120 million won. This, on top of buying a truck, renting an excavator, and buying food for the volunteers, practically emptied his pockets.
Starting five years ago, when his generous deeds became known, the Ulsan city government began giving Mr. Sim a grant of 5 million won each year. Moreover, this year special funding of 35 million won was provided, lessening his financial burden.
Gang Han-won, the chief director of Ulsan’s Environment Bureau, said that if the work were put out to public tender, getting rid of 2,000 stacks of rubbish would cost at least 1 billion won. He added, “It is quite embarrassing not to be able to give more support due to budgetary regulations restricting large funding of volunteer work.”
Mr. Sim began cleaning the Taewha River in May 1988, when he and 10 neighbors cleared away construction materials that had been left at the bases supporting the columns of Taewha Bridge for over a year.
“I felt absolutely proud of myself in feeling that I contributed something to my hometown after buying a three-ton boat and concentrating on removing trash instead of working,” he said.
In May and June last year, 80 public officials who rank above department chief, including Mayor Park Aaeng-woo, did volunteer work with Mr. Sim.
Mr. Sim commented, “This is something that someone has to do, and I’m delighted that I’m perfect for the job as I have the time and the economic wherewithal to accomplish it.”
by Lee Key-one