Manseong-ri, shindeok, yeosu oil spill, yeosu, south korea, oil spill

In Yeosu, a predictable spill hits a vulnerable area

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Oil-contaminated debris found along the Yeosu coast.

The oil started spilling into the mouth of Gwangyang Port around 9:30 a.m. on Friday, January 31, 2014. A Singapore-registered vessel, piloted by a port captain and exceeding speed limits, ran into pipelines at a GS Caltex petrochemical facility, damaging the pipelines and dumping 164 tons of oil into the coastal waters off Yeosu.

A map of Yeosu, with the accident location marked. Map via Google Maps.

A map of Yeosu, with the accident location marked. Map via Google Maps.

The spill couldn’t have come in a worse or more predictable spot. Yeosu City and the Gwangyang Port are home to one of the world’s largest industrial complexes–a labyrinthine landscape of pipelines, cooling towers, steel plants, and shipping terminals. The area is also home to fisheries, fish farms, and marine wildlife sanctuaries. Many of Yeosu’s residents’ livelihoods depend on tourism and the seafood trade. As the oil spread on Friday and over the Lunar New Year weekend, it was clear that the spill would have far-reaching consequences.

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A woman works on her fishing boat in Gwangyang Port, near the site of a major oil spill.

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One of the first areas affected was Shindeok-dong, a small fishing village about 2km south of the spill. Shindeok is a small collection of concrete homes nestled together on the eastern shore of Yeosu. Small piers and fishing boats dot its shoreline. The cleanup effort, which involved the Coast Guard, Army, national police, the Red Cross, GS Caltex, and the Korea Marine Environment Management Corporation (KOEM), as well as hundreds of volunteers, began there, and would spread along with the oil in the coming days.

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A volunteer collects oil-contaminated debris from the shoreline.

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A woman uses oil absorbent mats to soak up oil along the shore of Shindeok Village.

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Volunteers and officials look for oil contamination along the shore in Shindeok Village.

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Cleanup workers are reflected in contaminated water near Shindeok Village.

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Local resident volunteers at the site of cleanup efforts in Shindeok.

Oil spill cleanup is a painstaking process, and the effects of most spills are often not known for years. Yeosu had already seen a major spill in 1995, which, as the Korea Herald reports:

“resulted in some 5,000 tons of oil contaminating its coastline. It took five months to clean up the spill and the damage was estimated at 150 billion won ($140 million), according to reports.”

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Volunteers clean rocks by hand along the shore of Shindeok Village.

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Volunteers clean rocks by hand along the shore of Shindeok Village.

Shindeok was not the only area affected by this most recent spill. I traveled around the area with staff and volunteers from the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, a national NGO, and we witnessed oil contamination well into Gwangyang Port and as far south as Udu-ri, and oil has been reported to the east, along the shores of Nam-hae.

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A resident couple collects trash and oil-contaminated debris along the coast near Manseong-ri, a popular beach in Yeosu.

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A volunteer from the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements collected contaminated debris along the coast of Yeosu.

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Choi Yeyong, a researcher with the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, points to the location of the spill on a map at the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements office in Yeosu.

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A pipeline similar to the one damaged during the accident.

Like last time, compensation for the affected will be difficult to come by. Much of the fishing in the area is unlicensed, and those families will have a hard time claiming damages. After the building boom of the Yeosu Expo in 2012, an even larger portion of the economy is dependent on tourism. That industry will suffer as well. What is less clear is what this event will mean for GS Caltex and the numerous other large corporations that operate in the area. On Thursday, Feb. 6, South Korean president Park Geun-hye removed the head of the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries, Yoon Jin-sook, after she suggested that the real victim of the spill was GS Caltex, angering local residents.

More images:

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The GS Caltex pipeline damaged in the accident.

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A volunteer collected seaweed contaminated with oil along the Yeosu coastline.

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Volunteers cleaned rocks near Shindeok village.

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A volunteer collected oil-contaminated debris in Shindeok.

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Oil spill clean up in Shindeok.

All photographs in this post by Ben Weller, all rights reserved. To license images from this post please fill out the contact form.

miryang, KEPCO,

Miryang and the Politics of Power in South Korea

I’ve lived the majority of the last 12 years in Busan, Korea’s second largest city, and I’ve witnessed the place change and grow in almost incomprehensible ways. Once quiet neighborhoods have turned into bustling hubs of economic activity; mountainsides have been reshaped into high-rise residences. The city has become bigger, taller, flashier, more accessible, and meaner, all at the same time. The dynamic has played out over and over in cities throughout the country.

Korea’s rapid economic growth demands enormous amounts of electricity, and it’s that demand that has met the fierce resistance of the farmers of Miryang, a small city 47 kilometers northwest of Busan. To these mostly elderly farmers, the most visible effect of “development” is not cell phones, flatscreen TVs, or air-conditioning. It is the high-voltage transmission towers that have sprouted along the ridges of their mountain valley.

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Roads have been cut through their orchards, and trails dug out from the mountainsides, so that workers from the state utility, KEPCO, can reach the tower sites. The family burial sites of ancestors sit next to the crudely cut paths, in the shadow of towers. While some farmers have accepted buyouts from the state, many others have resisted, and this resistance has been met with force. The small farming villages of Miryang have come to resemble a police state.

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I arrived in Miryang on January 25, traveling on a Hope Bus from Ulsan with a contact I had in the movement. The Hope Bus movement was born out of a labor solidarity action in Busan in 2011, and has spread as individuals and groups from around the country travel to sites of popular protest to show their support. The conflict in Miryang has drawn the sympathies of labor, environmental, and anti-nuclear activists, and on this day they had turned out by the thousands. Along with many local residents, including the farmers whose land is at issue, they would march peacefully from City Hall to the KEPCO office, and finally rally at Miryang Station.

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When the rally ended on Saturday evening, I moved from Miryang Station to the village of Donghwajeon, along with a group of Hope Busers from the city of Daegu. Donghwajeon rests on the slopes of a wide valley, and above its modest homes sit orchards and burial plots. Snaking among them is a path up to the mountain ridge, where two transmission towers stand and another waits to be built. It was this site the protestors were trying to reach in the pre-dawn hours of January 26, when the group was blocked by riot police. The protestors immediately surged forward, pulling police one by one through to their ranks and attempting to break apart the human blockade.

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In the darkness, I saw small groups of people begin to break off from the main group and scurry up the hillside away from the road. I followed behind as police chased after. We were headed toward the ridge, but in the darkness it was difficult to tell where we were, and there was no trail to follow. Instead, we followed the voices and shouts of those ahead of us.

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After perhaps thirty minutes of hard climbing we reached the ridge, just as the sun was starting to rise. Amazingly, there was another large police force waiting for the protestors and blocking the path. Here, on top of a mountain in rural South Korea, riot police were ready to block locals access to their own land in the name of power and modernization.

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The protestors argued with the police for an hour or so, asking why they weren’t allowed to pass, and sometimes attempting to push through. Finally, the people broke into song. They then turned and walked in the opposite direction, to one of the towers that has already been completed and waits to be connected to the others and, ultimately, to a new nuclear power plant–once the protesting farmers are bought-off, pacified, or removed.

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The battle in Miryang is a familiar one wherever the demands of “development” clash with the call of tradition, the lives of the marginalized, and the property of the poor. The state has too much invested to let a small group of farmers and activists stop the project, but the passion and militancy of the opposition suggests that this struggle–already two years old–will continue for some time.

Park Chung-hee, the dictator who ruled South Korea from 1961 until 1979, is most often credited for building modern Korea. Under Park, the country underwent rapid industrialization through massive state projects and the suppression of labor and dissent. Today, his daughter, Park Geun-hye, is president, and the tensions between economic growth and democracy are still playing themselves out–in cities, in factories, and in the mountains of Miryang. As much as power lines and big cities have transformed this country, struggles like this one have also helped to form modern South Korea–a land where a dictatorship brought development, and an opposition built democracy.

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Story and photographs by Ben Weller/www.wellerpix.com