Korea's Oil Spill Still Spreading

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KIM JAE-HWAN / AFP / Getty Images

Residents clean up a beach slick with oil on Sunday, Dec. 9, following South Korea's worst-ever oil spill

For Choi Yeyong, an environmentalist with Friends of the Earth Korea, it was the worst kind of déjà vu. "When I reached the tanker and saw the holes, it felt like the spill 12 years ago," recalls Choi, who says he was nearly brought to tears when he surveyed South Korea's worst-ever oil spill last Saturday on the country's west coast. In 1995, the Korean tanker Sea Prince ran aground during a typhoon, spilling 5,000 tons of oil on the southern coast. The slick caused an estimated $100 million in damage and took five months to clean up. "But this time," says Choi, "[the spill] is twice as large."

The latest spill occurred on the morning of Dec. 7, when a barge owned by Samsung Heavy Industries smashed into the Hong Kong-registered supertanker Hebei Spirit about five miles (8km) off the coast and some 93 miles (150km) southwest of the capital Seoul, tearing holes in its hull. The anchored tanker was carrying about 230,000 tons of crude oil, of which an estimated 10,840 tons gushed into the sea between Korea and China before the leak was finally halted on Sunday morning.

The clean-up effort, which began in earnest Sunday, the day after the oil slick started to wash ashore, has involved 150 ships as well as thousands of police, soldiers, fishermen and volunteers. The front pages of Korea's major newspapers have been covered with pictures of rescue workers and disconsolate local residents scooping up viscous, oil-saturated water from the area's beaches. A paltry 698 tons of oil has been collected so far, according to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Five days into the disaster, the oil slick is still spreading. As of Tuesday, the spill had contaminated an estimated 24 miles (38km) of coastline, damaging several thousand hectares of aquatic farmland and a handful of scenic beaches. And as the damage spreads, so does the blame: Korean media and environmentalists now argue that the disaster could have been mitigated had the government responded more effectively.

"They weren't prepared enough to control the spread," Gi Tgan Hyuk, a spokesman for the Korea Federation For Environment Movement, told TIME. The group says the government should have put an oil fence around the tanker immediately to control the slick while rescue teams waited for heavy seas to settle down in order to plug the remaining holes in the tanker's portside, a job that was completed only some 48 hours after the accident. While the government says it did place barriers around the tanker, environmental groups charge that the vessel wasn't completely encircled, allowing oil to seep out.

Some Korean media outlets also accuse the government of underestimating the environmental impact of the collision from the outset. Officials on Friday were initially optimistic that the accident would prove to less serious than the 1995 spill, because the collision was further out to sea and the cold weather would prevent it from reaching the shoreline quickly. But heavy winds and strong tides carried the oil to the coastline in less than twelve hours.

In the wake of the 1995 accident, environmentalists say, the Korean government talked about the need to clamp down on single-hulled tankers like the Sea Prince and insist that only safer double-bottomed or double-hulled ships carry oil in its waters. (Single-hulled tankers are scheduled to be phased out worldwide by 2010 under an international maritime treaty.) The Hebei Spirit, which was carrying oil from the United Arab Emirates to the Hyundai Oil Bank at Daeson, has a single hull. Without any legislation against such vessels, "the terrible thing is this kind of accident can happen again," says Choi. Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper also reported on Tuesday that the Hebei Spirit was notified about the loose barge, but allegedly said it could not change its course at that time. The government is now investigating the cause of the accident.

While Seoul has so far declined to put a price tag on the disaster, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries has declared the area a disaster zone, enabling emergency funds, resources and personnel to be mobilized more quickly. But with heavy winds and strong tides hampering cleanup efforts the damage — and the costs — are expected to grow. The Ministry estimates it will take about two months to clean up the damage. How long the political fallout takes to settle is anyone's guess.