[Viewpoiont] Don’t boast of the ‘miracle of Taean’

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[Viewpoiont] Don’t boast of the ‘miracle of Taean’

In March 1989, the U.S. oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled a huge amount of crude oil in a bay off Alaska.

Six years later the Sea Prince had an oil leak in waters off Yeosu in South Jeolla. Both accidents were environmental disasters that had been caused by ridiculous mistakes.

The captain of Exxon Valdez was accused of being drunk at that time. The captain of Sea Prince underestimated a typhoon and stayed out at sea until the boat crashed into rocks. Both oil tankers had a single-layered hull, which made the damage much more devastating.

However, the United States and Korea have responded to the disasters in completely different ways.

The U.S. Congress acted progressively to prevent future accidents. In 1990, the Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act and banned tankers that do not have double-layered hulls from getting close to the U.S. coastline. Moreover, OPA holds the company responsible for the accident infinitely accountable for compensation.

Following that, the industry voluntarily prepared preventative measures to avoid possible accidents. The U.S. government also learned a valuable lesson: Too many cooks spoil the broth.

It was hard to respond to unforeseen national disasters effectively when both the government and civilians try to get involved in preventative efforts without proper organization.

So in 1994, the U.S. Government adopted a procedure on Spills of National Significance. Every three years, the U.S. Coast Guard and federal, state, local and private organizations perform a nationwide SONS exercise.

The SONS 2010 exercise in Portland, Maine that took place from March 22 to 24 was focused on communications. Some 650 representatives from over 50 organizations gathered at the command and control headquarters in Portland and practiced emergency communications.

They shared information frequently with higher agencies in Washington and Boston through video conferences. The state of Maine had been preparing the exercise for a year and half to take into account every possible scenario imaginable.

After the four-day exercise, an internal evaluation will be conducted for a year and the report will be presented to the U.S. president. Needless to say, the report serves as a reference for the next exercise.

After the Sea Prince disaster, Korea tried to copy the U.S. system. However, the government’s slow disaster response was criticized when an oil leak occurred in Taean in 2007. At that time, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs in Seoul and the Maritime Police Agency and local governments all were thrown into confusion and stumbled badly.

Compensation for the victims was also delayed much longer than necessary. And even the removal of the oil sludge from the coast had to be done by 1.5 million volunteers. But there are still single-hulled tankers sailing around Korea. After suffering two environmental catastrophes, the regulation has not changed.

Once again, the government is perplexed in the aftermath of the tragic sinking of the ROK Navy ship Cheonan.

I want to ask if the government has even a manual for such disasters and accidents. Initially, only high-speed patrol boats were sent to the spot and they could not approach the sinking ship because of rough seas. They had to wait for the Maritime Police to arrive. If they had put out a buoy before the ship sank, we could have saved precious time needed to rescue the crew.

It is just embarrassing to think of the president who celebrated so cheerfully Korea’s becoming the chair country of the G-20 Summit.

I would like to take this opportunity to give some advice to the government. Please do not boast about the “miracle of Taean” in the future.

There is nothing to brag about when volunteers who were not provided with proper safety gear worked hard to remove the toxic oil with just their bare hands. At that time, the government not only stood back but even encouraged the voluntary cleanup.

It is a national disgrace.

*The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Jung Kyung-min
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