Pollution of groundwater beneath the U.S. army base in central Seoul is far more serious than expected, according to a belatedly disclosed report. It is alarming that even the Han River as well as Yongsan Garrison's adjacent areas may have been contaminated.
According to the report released by the Ministry of Environment, Tuesday, benzene, a cancer-causing substance, was found in 10 out of 14 sample wells. At one monitoring well, the level of benzene was 2.44 milligrams per liter, 162 times above the permissible level. Other chemicals detected at levels in excess of their safety limits included toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
This underground water contamination may be natural, considering that oil leaks have occurred frequently inside the Yongsan base. A report authored by the U.S. Department of Defense, obtained by a Seoul-based environment group, showed earlier this month that the base suffered at least 84 oil leaks between 1990 and 2015. The figure is much more than the five cases reported to the environment ministry so far.
That's because U.S. Forces Korea covered up most of the oil leaks under some perfunctory environmental clauses of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs the treatment of American soldiers here. Our government deserves harsh criticism for failing to confirm such oil leaks properly.
What's more pitiable is that the release of the environment ministry's report came after almost two years of legal tussles between the ministry and a civic group represented by progressive lawyers. The report is the result of the ministry's first inspection conducted in 2015, but it's unclear when the results for the other two inspections in 2016 will be available.
Given that it is difficult to figure out exactly what happened inside Yongsan Garrison, the ministry should carry out additional environmental probes extensively, in addition to releasing the withheld results soon. The problem is that undoing polluted military bases is never easy because of the lack of legal means to hold the United States accountable. We expect the U.S. military to make a forward-looking decision.
More fundamentally, it will be necessary for the allies to consider revising the SOFA so America's responsibility for environmental pollution can be defined clearly.