Korea: Pitching In to Clean Up An Oil Spill
South Korea has been my home for almost a year and although the Taean Haean National Park is a mere two hours from my house, I’d never got around to visiting.
I can’t tell you how sad I was that the first time I saw these quiet, secluded beaches (a rarity in small, overpopulated Korea) the entire region had been destroyed by South Korea’s largest ever oil spill.
Disaster struck in early December when a South Korean barge hit a Hong Kong ‘supertanker,’ causing it to send almost three million gallons of crude oil gushing into the ocean seven miles off shore.
The spill affected an eleven-mile stretch of the coast, much of which falls into one of Korea’s few marine National Parks.
In the days following the tragedy, newspapers were full of the standard shots featuring lifeless fish washing up onto the blackened beaches and volunteers cleaning the oil-caked wings of seabirds. But what of the region now? A month on, has the area been restored to its former glory? Sadly no.
The throngs of workers that were previously filling the beaches petered out and the press has inevitably lost interest, but there is still plenty to be done.
Soon after the accident, a few friends and I found ourselves at loose ends and decided we’d like to lend a hand however we could. Phone calls to town halls and tourist information offices led nowhere, so we decided the best option was to simply turn up and hope we wouldn’t be sent away.
Friends warned us against the idea, maintaining that every Korean and his dog would be heading to the beach, clogging the roads and fighting to clean up any remaining oil. We figured that our help was unlikely to be shunned, so ignored the cynics, crammed into our tiny car and drove up to the coast unannounced.
As we approached Mallipo Beach, the central point of the spill, coaches filled with homeward-bound volunteers passed us and we began to wonder whether our services would be required.
Undeterred, we checked into a motel and hunted for a place to dine, but since most restaurants in the region specialise in seafood and fish, finding a meal turned out to be a tricky challenge. We tracked down the only available eatery and were glad to escape the nauseating oil fumes propelled by a bracing December wind.
The fact that our culinary options were limited turned out to be a blessing since every other volunteer in town was also sitting down to a plate of fried chicken and a beer after their day cleaning up the beach.
The crowd was almost entirely made up of Koreans who had gathered from across the country to help out, but amongst them was one foreign face. Scott, an American living in Seoul, had been in the area a few days and offered some useful tips on where our help was most needed.
Since Mallipo is easily reached by bus, volunteers had been descending on the beach by the thousands and most of the hard work was already finished.
Having made the trip we wanted to actually be of some use and not scavenging the sand for minute patches of oil, fighting with fellow helpers to see who could clean it up first. With this in mind we decided to join Scott on his trek north to find a beach that was desperately seeking cleaners.
On Sunday morning we arose at eight and wolfed down a quick breakfast before piling on the layers and heading out into the cold. Unsure of what to expect, we were hugely impressed with how well organised the clean-up process was.
Just behind Mallipo Beach were tents where Red Cross workers presented us with fresh overalls, some sturdy gloves and invited us to climb the mountain of rubber boots to try and find something in our size.
Once suitably, if somewhat ridiculously, clothed we jumped in the car and followed the patchy road north to Baengnipo.
None of us had ever actually witnessed an oil spill before, so were a little unsure of what to expect. I think we were imagining lake-sized puddles of oil that could be scooped up into buckets, providing instant gratification. The reality was slightly less worthy of Hollywood.
Although mopping up pools of oil wasn’t in the cards, it was clear that our help was certainly needed in a rather less glamorous task.
You might remember a Simpsons episode where the eco-conscious Lisa helps out after an oil spill, but is miffed to find that the animals have all been cleaned and all that is left for her to do is polish the rocks. Well that’s how we spent our day in the Taean Haean National Park – ensuring that every single overlooked rock was wiped clean.
It really is the most disheartening task. You could sit in the same place for a whole day, only wiping the rocks within easy reach. You’d get through dozens of rags, soaking them with the gloopy mess and at the end of the day look around and feel that you had achieved nothing at all. But we kept reassuring ourselves and each other that our efforts were making some sort of a dent, however small.
The other volunteers went out of their way to welcome us as the only foreign helpers on the beach. They were quick to invite us to join the mid-morning coffee break and for lunch, all provided by generous locals donating masses of rice and ramyeon, spicy instant noodles that are a favourite snack for Koreans.
At lunchtime we were approached by an eager man dressed in the work robes of a Buddhist monk. He told us, in broken English, that no one was working on the opposite side of the beach and that he’d like our help. To sweeten the deal he threw in some oil absorbent towels and gallons of a mystery liquid that he claimed helped break down the oil.
Intrigued by equipment a little more high-tech than old rags and eager to help wherever we were needed, we followed him.
He turned out to be quite the character and very keen to show that whatever this strange and foul-smelling liquid was, it was not harmful. And the best way to demonstrate that? To continually swig it from the container of course!
Later on, he invited us to join him in a walk to the far end of the beach and was eager to prove that not only was the cleaning liquid palatable, but so too were the few remaining molluscs on the beach. We watched with a combination of horror and surprise as he picked up the occasional oyster or string of seaweed from the oil-covered shore and wolfed it down.
We decided to stick to the safer and more palatable snacks provided by locals, grateful for the volunteers who pitched in to help the environment and just as importantly, the economy.
While the region will surely see a fall in the number of beachgoers seeking a spot on the sand or a seat in one of the seafood restaurants, a much greater worry is loss of earnings for the farmers. Maritime farmers in the area number over 4,000, serving Korea’s restaurants with the much needed abalone and seaweed that form a crucial part of their health-conscious diet.
At the end of a long and tiring day, we had some mixed emotions. On one hand, we couldn’t help feeling a little pleased with ourselves for behaving like altruists on a chilly Sunday afternoon. On the other we felt like we’d accomplished little, despite our numb hands and oil smeared clothing.
Cleaning up the Taean coast is going to take months and restoring the area’s environment and economy decades, but little by little the diligent Korean people and a few resident foreigners are working together to restore one of their most beautiful stretches of coastline.
For more information on volunteering, contact the author.
Donations can be made to the Korean Red Cross.
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