Dispute over trash mountain in Uiseong goes to the courts

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Dispute over trash mountain in Uiseong goes to the courts

A mountain of trash in Uiseong County in North Gyeongsang drew international media attention last year. The county is still struggling over a messy garbage crisis - and an even messier set of lawsuits.

The county is struggling with how to dispose over 173,000 tons of trash piled up in Saengsong-ri, a farming town of around 50 households in Uiseong, just 800 meters (2,625 feet) away from Nakdong River.

A scathing CNN report in March 2019 drew international attention to the mountain of garbage in Uiseong, highlighting Korea’s plastic waste problem. And the county has been taking steps to manage trash levels.

The Uiseong County office said Sunday that in June 2019, it began the disposal process of 26,000 tons of trash at the site owned by Korea Environment Industrial Development, a recycling business that has been accused of neglecting the garbage over years. The county planned to kick off a second round of disposals this year to get rid of the rest of the garbage by forced government means.

However, the recycling company filed a lawsuit against the county in the Daegu District Court. It accused Uiseong County of blocking its own attempt to dispose of the garbage and called for the revocation of the county’s attempts.

This company has also been physically blocking the county’s attempts to remove the trash from the site, and an SUV was spotted blocking waste disposal equipment from entering the site recently. The vehicle resisted police attempts to remove it from the site in recent days.

In turn, the company hired by the county to carry out the forced disposals from the site filed a complaint with local police against Korea Environment Industrial Development for blocking its attempts to carry out its duty.

A spokesperson from Korea Environment Industrial Development said, “The Administrative Vicarious Execution Act is a law allowing the government to carry out demolitions and other actions in unavoidable circumstances. It is unfair for Uiseong County to carry out administrative vicarious execution when our company said we will dispose of the garbage ourselves.”

Uiseong County says the company ignored multiple orders over the years to manage the so-called “mountain of trash” and can no longer be trusted.

On July 18, the Daegu District Prosecutors’ Office’s Uiseong branch office arrested and charged the owners of the waste management company, a married couple, for violation of the Wastes Control Act following an eight-month investigation. Prosecutors found that the business owners, a 65-year-old man and his 52-year-old wife, since August 2017 to July 2019 had neglected waste far exceeding the permitted amount at the site. This waste - including plastic, Styrofoam, electric wires and metal scraps - had been collected nationwide including from the capital of Seoul as well as the provinces of Gyeonggi, North Gyeongsang and South Chungcheong.

The waste disposal company received a permit in 2008, and at that time, was granted permission to store up to 1,137 tons on the site as a general waste recycling business. This amount was increased by an additional 1,020 tons in 2013, bringing the total amount to 2,157 tons of trash allowed to be stored on-site.

The couple initially profited off the waste. They exported the garbage for around 100,000 won ($86) per ton. Exporting garbage to China was a lucrative business, but China imposed a ban on waste imports at the beginning of 2018.

Even before that, the garbage mountain started growing, and the company drew flak for accumulating some 80 times the permitted garbage. Uiseong County took 20 administrative measures and filed seven complaints with the company. An administrative lawsuit was started, and the trash continued to pile up.

As the company failed to dispose of the waste, the county in 2017 canceled its permit for waste management services. The couple who operated the business allegedly siphoned 2.8 billion won to set up a new waste disposal company in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang. The owner of the original company has changed since. A fourth court hearing for the couple is scheduled for Jan. 21.

BY KIM JUNG-SEOK, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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