Posted : 2007-12-09 17:20
Updated : 2007-12-09 17:20

Worst Oil Spill

It's Time to Take Bold Measures to Prevent Disasters

Last week's oil spill shows how such disasters wreak havoc on the environment. It took place Friday morning when the Hong Kong-registered Hebei Spirit, a 146,000-ton tanker, collided with an 11,800-ton barge off Taean, South Chungcheong Province. The collision caused about 10,500 tons of oil to leak into the waters of the Yellow Sea.

The case reminds us of the nightmare of a 1995 oil spill from the Sea Prince oil tanker belonging to a local petrochemical company. The Sea Prince accident was the worst then, as 5,000 tons of oil was released into waters off the southwestern port of Yeosu, South Jeolla Province. The oil spill contaminated coastlines as far as Pohang, 230 kilometers from where the accident occurred. It took about five months to clean up while causing damage estimated at 96 billion won ($105 million).

Friday's accident is sure to be worse than the Sea Prince as the oil spillage is twice that of the 1995 case. Maritime authorities have yet to calculate the exact damage as the oil slick has continued to spread aided by tides and the wind. Six beaches (221 hectares) have already been declared off limits as the crude oil has soaked into the sand. About 250 fish farms (3,571 hectares) have also been destroyed by the oil spill.

Experts came up with a rough estimate of 300 billion won ($330 million) in damage to the oil tanker, tourist businesses and oyster and abalone farming in the ecologically pristine Taean County, in which there are 5,600 hectares of fish farms. The figure could rise further if the oil slick reaches more areas and the cleanup and damage control work is subject to delay. More than 90 vessels and six helicopters were dispatched to the affected areas and over 6,650 soldiers and police are working to block the spread of oil.

Fishermen, vendors, environmentalists and residents criticize the authorities for the disaster, claiming that the accident could have been prevented if they had taken appropriate steps. Outdated disaster control measures are also to blame for damage to beaches and fish farms. Many fishermen complain that their farms were totally destroyed by the oil slick, while store and restaurant owners are concerned about the loss of business due to the blackened beaches.

It is regrettable that the accident occurred apparently due to communication problems between the oil tanker, the barge and the regional maritime affairs and fisheries office. The office tried to make radio contact with the barge carrying the crane twice, just two hours before the accident to warn that it was too close to the tanker. But it failed to do so. The office and Samsung Heavy Industries, the owner of the barge, blamed each other for the failure.

Another problem is that the authorities have failed to take timely and appropriate action to prevent the spread of the leaked oil. Thus, disaster control officials could not prevent oil from reaching beaches and fish farms. One day after the accident, the central government declared a state of disaster in the affected areas.

We have to learn a valuable lesson from the oil spill because such a disaster could incur irrevocable damage to the marine ecological system. It could take more than a decade to restore the destroyed areas. It is imperative to take bold measures to prevent the recurrence of such an accident as well as to set up a quick response system to cope with potential disasters.

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