[Viewpoint]An avoidable mess

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[Viewpoint]An avoidable mess

Two weeks have passed since a phenol leak contaminated the Nakdong River. It happened while firefighters were extinguishing a fire in the Kolon Chemical factory in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang.
Exactly 17 years ago, in March 1991, an environmental catastrophe, a phenol leak from an electronics company in Gumi, North Gyeongsang, frightened about 10 million people living near the middle and lower reaches of the Nakdong River. Fortunately, the damage from the incident was minimal, although 20 tons of phenol flowed into the river.
Two weeks ago, the appropriate government agencies responded quickly, but the most important thing was that the amount leaked was very small, amounting to about 11.2 kilograms (25 pounds).
Now that the leak is under control, the community is busy asking for accountability and urging the appropriate countermeasures, as always happens after such events. However, as we saw in the chemical leakage 17 years ago and the oil spill in the Taean area more recently, finding the people responsible will drag on day by day until the whole thing fades away.
Although the Bureau of Audit and Inspection has launched a special investigation, we cannot expect it to examine the response of each government agency and prepare proper future plans on short notice.
Nevertheless, devising countermeasures would be easier if we could see through the essence of the problem. We should start with a thorough review of the disaster. The phenol leak was foreseeable early on.
In 1986, a pharmaceutical company in Basel, Switzerland suffered a fire. As it was being extinguished, more than 1,000 tons of toxic chemicals flew into the Rhine River. The phenol contamination of the Nakdong River in 1991 happened as the result of a fire, so the government hurriedly came up with plans to prevent a reoccurrence of similar disasters. Let’s look at those preventative measures.
The key points included installing an automatic water quality monitoring system in major spots on the shores of the Nakdong River, holding a metropolitan administrative council hosted by the Ministry of Environment, establishing a wastewater discharge alarm system in the Nakdong River and tightening the supervision on the pollution-producing plants near the Nakdong River.
Which government agency was responsible for implementing those measures? The Ministry of Environment was in charge of the first three tasks. The fourth measure was supposed to be pursued by the Ministry of Environment and the local cities and provinces together.
The automatic water quality monitoring system operated by the Ministry of Environment was useless at the time of the incident. The wastewater discharge alarm system never got installed. The Ministry of Environment has a subsidiary exclusively handling water quality control for the four major rivers. However, the ministry’s role was limited to distributing press releases avoiding responsibility.
Gimcheon City officials discovered the phenol leak first and responded promptly. As soon as the Korea Water Resources Corporation detected the inflow of the chemical into the river, it immediately suspended the regular water supply and provided emergency water service. It is hard to blame the local firefighters because they could not afford to worry about the toxic leakage while they were putting out the fire. The main problem was a lack of cooperation among the related authorities.
However, I personally believe the Ministry of Environment is ultimately responsible for coordinating cooperation among the government agencies. The ministry operates the Nakdong River Water System Management Committee, designed to promote collaboration among related government agencies. The committee’s function includes assisting activities to preserve and monitor the water quality.
After the phenol leakage in 1991, the Ministry of Environment created the Four Rivers Special Act and enhanced its status. It also spent an enormous amount to improve water quality. Such activities should have included the prevention of a similar disaster and a thorough clearance work following such an incident. However, we are experiencing the same catastrophe 17 years later. If accountability is not demanded this time, no one can say for sure another environmental disaster can be avoided.

*The writer is the director of Semin Environmental Research Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Hong Wuk-hee
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