The government failed to conduct environmental damage assessments at 113 U.S. military bases that were returned to Korea between 1990 to 2004, a Defense Ministry official admitted Wednesday.
"According to a special agreement on environmental protection under the Status of Forces Agreement in 2001, the U.S. military has no obligation to clean up environmental pollution at installations returned to Korea before 2005, and we had no authority to investigate them," the official said. "As a result, we could not conduct any environmental damage assessments on 113 U.S. bases that were returned until 2004, and to my knowledge no such assessment took place after their handover."
Altogether 191 U.S. military installations have either been returned to Korea or will be returned. Forty-six have been handed back since 2005, and 32 more are left.
There was therefore no environmental assessment on Camp Mercer near Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, which was returned in 1993 and where a U.S. veteran claimed a landfill containing hundreds of gallons of chemicals was buried back in 1964. "We did not conduct any environmental damage assessments because there were no known facilities there that could have caused any pollution," the official said.
A team of officials from the Defense Ministry, Army and Environment Ministry, as well as civilian experts, conducted their first investigation at Camp Mercer on Wednesday. "We took a look at the layout of the base from July of 1954 until September 1992, when the U.S. 44th Engineering Battalion was stationed there, as well as screening the background history of the land and interviewing long-serving non-commissioned officers and other soldiers there," the official said.
"If we detect any instances of soil contamination, we will immediately start physically examining the site." But even if soil contamination is confirmed at the Camp Mercer site, the U.S. has no obligation to clean up the damage and the government cannot file for compensation because the military base was returned before 2005.
Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry and U.S. Forces Korea plan a SOFA environmental subcommittee meeting at the Yongsan base on Thursday to discuss forming a joint committee to investigate claims that the toxic defoliant Agent Orange was buried at Camp Carroll in Chilgok, North Gyeongsang Province. The two sides will also discuss how to proceed with the investigation and what areas the probes will focus on. The Environment Ministry wants to start the investigation as soon as discussions with the U.S. military are wrapped up.