The ‘salamander war’ that didn’t really matter

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The ‘salamander war’ that didn’t really matter

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Salamander eggs are abundant in swamps on Mount Cheonseong near Busan on Thursday even though KTX trains run through a tunnel below the swamp. Environment preservationists once opposed the tunnel, arguing that the salamander population would be wiped out by the construction and the vibration and noise caused by KTX trains. By Song Bong-geun


“Everything is like it has been,” swears Kim Bong-ok, 56, president of a confederation for the preservation of wetlands in Korea.

Kim is referring to Milbat Swamp in the middle of Mount Cheonseong in South Gyeongsang, which has recently been rated as a first-class swamp for its preserved condition. Through a tunnel in the mountain below, the KTX, Korea’s high-speed train, has been running 48 to 57 times a day since last November.

The swamp, looking peaceful now as the winter ice has given way to spring, was once Ground Zero in a bitter war that pitted a Buddhist monk, nature preservation groups and the company in charge of the KTX tunnel construction through Mount Cheonseong against each other. The subject of the war: Mount Cheonseong’s ecosystem, and eventually, the salamanders that are part of it.

It all started with a pilgrimage in January 2002, a sojourn by five monks who became chief combatants in the four-year conflict over the tunnel. The purpose of the trip was to protest construction through the mountain the tunnel for the KTX line connecting Daegu and Busan. Their concern was the ecosystem of the mountain.

Five months later, as tunnel construction started, Buddhist groups and environment activists in the South Gyeongsang area formed a task force to insist the route be changed.

Towards the end of 2002, Roh Moo-hyun was closing in on his opponent in the race to become Korea’s president. One of Roh’s campaign pledges was to scrap the Mount Cheonseong tunnel. After taking office in January 2003, one of the first orders he gave was to reinspect the plans for the tunnel and how they would affect the environment.

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Around this time, one of the five monks, Jiyul, started fasting, one of four fasts she would eventually hold to protest the tunnel.

On Oct. 15, 2003, a committee of 11 members of environmental protection groups and Jiyul filed an injunction against the Korea Rail Network Authority - the beginning of the “salamander lawsuit.”

The group gave a report to the Prosecutors’ Office in Busan called “Friends of Salamanders,” and it claimed that the amphibian had the right to be one of the plaintiffs in lawsuits because it was a dominating species of the mountain.

The report also said that the salamander could only survive in the “purest waters” and could be found in 22 swamps and 12 creeks in the mountain. The group claimed that construction on the mountain would drain the wetlands critical to the salamanders’ survival. At the time of the lawsuit, Jiyul started another fast that would last for 45 days.

In April 2004, the Ulsan District Court rejected the salamander lawsuit saying that “salamanders, as well as nature itself, do not have the ability to carry out the case. The environmental group ‘Friends of Salamanders’ do not have the right to request a halt to the construction.” The same decision was given in an appeals ruling and also by the Supreme Court in June 2006.

As the case moved through the courts, Jiyul fasted again for 100 days from November 2004 to February 2005, which alarmed the administration. A high-ranking official from the Blue House, Moon Jae-in, visited her and requested she stop fasting. She refused.

Despite the lawsuit and Jiyul’s fasts, the tunnel was completed and opened last November 1, although construction was delayed for six months. The firm responsible for the construction estimated the financial losses from the six month delay at 14.5 billion won ($12.9 million).

Now on the mountain above the hotly disputed tunnel can be seen scores of salamander eggs that continue their circle of life unscathed by the construction. The Korea Rail Network Authority has also installed equipment to measure the amount of water in various locations on the mountain to monitor the ecosystem.

“The water level is as it was before the construction,” said Kim Jo-eun, who is in charge of wetlands at Yangsan City Hall.

As for the monk who nearly starved herself to death for the salamanders, she has refused to answer questions since losing the lawsuit.


By Park Jong-kwon [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]


Related Korean Article[중앙일보]

천성산은 도롱뇽 알 천지였다

천성산의 늪에 봄이 찾아왔다. 경칩이 갓 지난 10일. 곳곳에 아직 잔설이 남아있지만, 개울에는 얼음 사이로 물이 졸졸 흐른다. 황금빛으로 누운 습지식물 삿갓사초와 ‘진퍼리새’도 초록빛 밑동을 보이며 기지개를 켠다. KTX가 지나는 원효터널 위 해발 750m에 위치한 밀밭 늪. 여기저기 움푹 팬 웅덩이마다 봄의 전령이 모습을 드러냈다. 도롱뇽 알 천지다. 기다란 알 주머니 아래 도롱뇽이 느릿느릿 헤엄친다. 옆에는 거무튀튀한 산개구리 알이 퍼져 있다. 바야흐로 봄맞이가 한창이다.

“예전이나 지금이나 달라진 것이 전혀 없어요.” 한국습지환경보전연합 김봉옥(56) 사무총장은 밀밭 늪이 보존상태가 뛰어난 ‘1급 습지’라고 했다. 산속 깊이 원효터널에는 지난해 11월부터 하루 48~57차례 KTX가 질주하지만, 올봄 늪의 풍경도 여느 해와 똑같다는 것이다.

곳곳 수량측정기에도 물이 가득하다. 한국철도시설공단이 사후환경영향평가와 생태계 모니터링을 위해 설치한 것이다. 양산시청 김조은(43) 습지담당은 “공사 때나 지금이나 수량은 그대로”라고 했다. 그래서일까. 늪 가장자리에 자라는 덩굴식물 미역줄 아래 경사면은 습기를 먹은 이탄(泥炭)층이 물렁물렁하거나 질척거린다. 걸음을 내디딜 때마다 흙에서 물이 배어 나왔다.

지율 스님과 환경단체는 2003년 10월 천성산 도롱뇽을 원고로 원효터널 공사착공 금지 가처분 소송을 냈다. 터널이 생기면 늪이 말라 생태계가 파괴되고, 도롱뇽은 서식처를 잃게 된다는 것이었다. 지율 스님은 그러면서 총 네 차례에 걸쳐 200일 이상 단식 농성을 했다. 지난 정권 때인 2004년 8월 문재인 청와대 수석은 단식 농성 중인 지율 스님을 찾아가 단식 철회를 권유하기도 했다.

소송 때문에 공사는 6개월간 중단됐다. 2006년 대법원이 소송 기각 및 각하 결정을 내린 뒤에야 공사는 다시 재개됐다.


시공업체는 공사 중단 때문에 직접 입은 손실이 145억원이었다고 설명했다. 간접적인 손실까지 따지면 계산하기 어려울 정도로 엄청나다. 그러나 터널공사 발파음에도, 질주하는 KTX 굉음에도 도롱뇽은 계속 번식하면서 자신의 세대를 늘려가고 있었다. 자연의 놀라운 생명력이고 자생력이다.

밀밭 늪에서 영산대학교 쪽으로 2㎞가량 내려오면 대성늪이다. 인근 사찰 대성사에서 이름을 땄다. 이곳은 상대적으로 고도가 낮아서인지 잔설도, 얼음도 사라지고 봄기운이 완연하다. 늪 아래 탁하고 깊은 웅덩이 수초에 도롱뇽 알이 도르르 말린 고추 모양으로 매달려 있다. 가장자리 얕은 물 나무등걸 사이에는 개구리 알도 질펀하다.

지난해 10월 중앙일보 취재진이 이곳 늪을 찾았을 때 한국양서·파충류생태연구소의 심재한(50) 소장은 KTX 개통 이후를 걱정했다. 곤충이나 양서류와 파충류는 진동에 아주 민감하기 때문이다. 이 또한 기우(杞憂)였다. 도롱뇽과 개구리가 짝짓기를 마친 웅덩이 위로 이름 모를 적갈색 나비도 짝을 찾아 날고 있었다. 마치 인간의 자연에 대한 무지(無知)와 아집(我執)을 비웃기라도 하는 듯이. 대한민국이 한바탕 홍역을 치렀던 도롱뇽 파동은 허무하게 종말을 맞았다.

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