Can policies prevent environmental accidents? (33)
While accidents, or incidents, affecting the quality of water should not occur, they brought about fundamental changes to environmental policies for the better.
By Lee Kyoo-yong
Environmental policies in Korea, particularly those relating to water pollution, bear significant impact on reducing the incidence of accidents and other matters of concern regarding our water supplies.
Accelerated economic growth meant that the importance of environmental policies took a backseat during the 1980s and 90s and this imposed a major obstacle to establishing methods of preventing “accidents.”
This was caused by the conservative policies of budget agencies and complaints from residents, as well as powerful lobbying from corporations to ease environmental regulations.
There were more than 100 water quality-related incidents in the 1990s but this contracted to around 50 in the 2000s, most of which are associated with leaks of hazardous materials and the extinction of fish in some areas.
In 1989, metallic substances, bacteria, ammonia and abnormal levels of nitrogen were found in tap water and triggered a public service announcement from the then Ministry of Construction and Transportation.
This immediately led to public distrust about the safety of tap water so the government proceeded to introduce an integrated plan to secure clean water in September of that year.
Under this plan, the government invested 2.2 trillion won during 1996 for the upgrading of wastewater and other basic water-related facilities and the Paldang Lake was designated as an area for special monitoring.
However, the designation of the Paldang and Daechong Lakes for special monitoring triggered strong resistance, not only from the Home Ministry but provincial governments and residents too.
It was only in June 1990 when the Board of Audit and Inspection reported the presence of cancer-causing substances in tap water to the National Assembly, that a plan for special protection of the regions, which supply water to some 30 million residents, was legislated.
Subsequently, compensation funds were established for victims of water pollution and a permanent budget for basic environmental facilities was set up in 1990.
In March 1991, the leakage of phenol into the Nakdong River rang additional alarm bells about the safety of our drinking water and served as the trigger for the introduction of tougher water management regulations.
In fact, it caused the single most important drive to advance investment in basic water management facilities throughout the 1990s and beyond.
Following the first water pollution incident, the government devised the Four River Water Quality Upgrading Plan and after a second incident, that occurred a few months later, it developed the Pan-National Water Purification Plan.
These plans increased manpower deployed to manage water quality in the upper reaches of rivers and sparked a crackdown on companies that dispose of harmful chemicals in streams.
Environment Management Committees were established for regions along the four rivers – Nakdong, Han, Geum and Yongsan – to resolve water quality problems.
More of the federal budget was earmarked for wastewater treatment and other water-related facilities in the provinces under the control of the then Ministry of Home Affairs (now Ministry of Public Administration and Security).
As a result of these dangerous incidents, the government introduced, in July 1993, an integrated five-year plan for the supply of clean water throughout the country by injecting 15.9 trillion won in 31 projects.
A total of eight ministries, including the Environment and then-Construction Ministries were to work together in a pan-national effort to improve the safety of water.
Then in January 1993, another incident occurred in which oil waste was leaked into the Nakdong River, causing a stench and a shortage of drinking water in the Busan and South Gyeongsang Province areas.
This led to a statement from the Environment Minister who said that cancer-causing agents, including benzene and toluene, have been detected in the river and used oil had been leaked illegally into the upper reaches of the Nakdong River.
This created enormous distrust among residents of the region and the government saw the need to bring about fundamental changes to water management policies.
Such was the case not only along the Nakdong River but also in the upper reaches of the Yongsan River which created a foul odor in tap water in the Mokpo region.
Thus, between 1996 and 2005, a total of 27 trillion won was injected into the upgrading of 597 water treatment facilities, including 287 wastewater treatment plants, as part of an expansive program to clean up the water supply around the country.
Owing to the importance and intensity of the issue, then-Prime Minister Lee Hoi-chang personally revealed the nature and details of the program.
As part of the initiative, all aspects of water management, which had been split up among different government agencies, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, was streamlined into the Environment Ministry and its status was elevated to the highest level of government agencies.
At the same time, water quality checking stations were set up at the four major rivers and regulations concerning the upper reaches of rivers were introduced as part of plans to protect the quality of tap water.
In 1998, the worsening of the quality of water in the Paldang Lake triggered the need for another revision of laws governing the management of the four major rivers.
This included control over leakage of hazardous materials into the rivers as well as levies imposed for the use of river water.
Looking at the details and why this was necessary, the BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) at the Paldang Lake dropped to 2.0 ppm (parts per million) due to a drought, just when the quality of water was reaching Grade 1.
This created major concerns among residents in the metropolitan area and called for the need to implement more specific measures to protect the quality of water in the upper reaches.
By undertaking this task, it came to light that the liberalization of land use regulation for real estate development was also a major source of the problem.
Subsequently, a water quality improvement task force was formed under the Prime Minister’s Office and more than 420 public hearings and discussions were held among experts, residents and provincial officials to put together a master plan for protecting the quality of water in the upper reaches of the major rivers.
A special law governing the management of the four major rivers was introduced under the win-win spirit of sharing our resources and looking back at faults committed in the past.
This uncovered the fact that residents living in the upper reaches of rivers were confined to strict regulations and made all the sacrifices while the rest reaped the benefits of clean water.
There was a need to change the system through which a spirit of co-existence could come into being and policies for protecting water quality while schemes to alleviate some market control of real estate in the areas were put in place.
While accidents, or incidents, affecting the quality of water should not occur, the fact they did brought about fundamental changes to environmental policies, certainly for the better.
Through these efforts, Korea’s water management policies have received accolades from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Economic Forum.
But the reality is that however effective post-accident programs are, it is critical that realistic preventive programs are put in place.
Damage from water pollution cannot be entirely calculated in numbers, from the difficulties residents have to suffer to the impact it has on industrial activities.
Some people say that the solution may be to only use mineral water, but then the reality would be that households and restaurants cannot feasibly use that for cooking and cleaning dishes.
In conclusion, the clear and simple answer lies in the prevention of water pollution.
In the United States and other developed nations, there are strong laws to protect clean water. Unfortunately, good starts are not always accompanied by a strong follow-though. For instance, the implementation of the U.S. Clean Water Act in the 1970s did improve water quality over the subsequent decade or two. But the act called for zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, and fishable and swimmable waters by 1983.
“Yet almost all surface waters in the U.S. still suffer some level of pollution; discharges are still permitted; the EPA still categorizes roughly 40 percent of lakes, rivers, and streams as unsafe for fishing or swimming; and the number of U.S. river miles on which people have been advised to restrict their consumption of fish has risen sharply since the early 1990s.?
Our first water pollution solution is simple: Enforce existing laws. Politicians
pontificating about a great new anti-pollution law they’ve sponsored means little if they continue to allow existing laws to go unenforced.
Beyond laws, there are some practical water pollution solutions that can be implemented by society and by you as an individual.
Former Environment Minister Lee Kyoo-yong, is a career bureaucrat who began his service in government in 1978 in the Ministry of Government Legislation after passing the state-run exam for higher government office. After joining the Environment Ministry in 1990, Lee served in virtually all vital bureaus, including those for air and water pollution and environmental policies.