Device to examine soil at U.S. base; officials discussing joint investigation
The U.S. military will mobilize ground-penetrating radar devices as early as next week to inspect the soil at one of its bases here where a large amount of Agent Orange was allegedly buried some three decades ago, the Eighth Army commander said Thursday.
Public anxiety here has been deepening over a series of allegations by former U.S. Forces Korea soldiers that toxic chemicals including the defoliant, known to cause cancer, fetal deformities and mental illnesses, were buried inside some of the U.S. installations.
“The first step will be to confirm the location. I have officials in the U.S. talking to the former soldiers to identify that location,” EUSA commander Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson, said in an MBC radio interview.
“As early as next week, we will have ground-penetrating radars that we can put over the location (at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province), and we will be able to see anything else buried there.”
Stressing that all investigations into the case will be carried out jointly with the Korean government, the commander said that the joint probe team will see if there is any health risk as alleged by the former soldiers.
“It is very important that both U.S. and Korean governments are involved in every step (of the investigation). We conduct testing on a regular basis. If that testing tells us there is a risk to human health, then we do the things necessary to remove that risk,” he said.
Richard Cramer, a former U.S. Forces Korea soldier, explains Wednesday photos showing the burial of a toxic defoliant at a base in South Korea. (Yonhap News)
“It is the same thing we are doing now. We are focusing on the potential of accusations that there is a health risk. We want to make sure that if there is, we take some action. If there is not, (we will) be able to tell the Korean people there is not a risk.”
Concerning the claims that the U.S. brought to South Korea Agent Orange left over from the Vietnam War, he said the leftover defoliant was moved to a “special island.”
“I know, as I have done my studies, that defoliants were removed from Vietnam to a special island and disposed of. But I don’t know what happened with the materials in Korea. So, that is one of the things this investigation will determine.”
Steve House, a soldier who served at the camp, recently told local media that about 600 barrels of the harmful chemical might have been buried in 1978 near a helipad of Camp Carroll, which is a central logistical support unit for the USFK.
Amid the allegations of toxic chemical contamination, local residents and environmentalists have been calling for a thorough investigation, with some expressing deep concerns that the reported dumping would seriously damage the image of their town and agricultural products grown there.
Another claim by a former USFK soldier that “every imaginable chemical” was dumped at Camp Mercer in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, in the 1960s, has further shocked the public, some of whom have called for a full-scale environmental inspection of all U.S. facilities here.
On Thursday, Korean and U.S. officials convened an environmental session under the Status of Forces Agreement to discuss the formation of a joint probe team and how to investigate alleged toxic contamination at Camp Carroll.
Seoul officials suggested digging exploratory holes to get samples of soil and analyze them.
“In order to find out whether the soil has been contaminated or not, we should dig the holes and collect the samples. We have yet to confirm how many holes should be dug,” an official said, declining to be named.
Meanwhile, Chilgok County that governs Waegwan and Bucheon City are trying to find witnesses to verify the claims on the dumping of chemicals. They expect the witnesses to shed light on where chemicals were buried and whether they still remain there or were moved to other locations.
The U.S. military here said its internal records show some chemical substances were buried at Camp Carroll in 1978 and the unit began moving the chemical waste somewhere else the following year for disposal. It also said that in 2004 ground testing in the region, dioxin was found.
The dumping allegations have prompted calls here in Korea for the revision of the SOFA, which was signed in 1966.
Environmentalists say that although the allies established environment-related rules in the pact in 2001, the “abstract, vaguely-worded” regulations that do not specify any compensation in case of environmental contamination by U.S. troops here, are not effective.
The rules state that the U.S. government confirms its policy to “respect” ― rather than “observe” ― South Korea’s relevant environmental laws, regulations and standards.
According to the Ministry of National Defense, from 1990 to May 2003, the U.S. military had not conducted any environmental surveys on 85 U.S. military facilities before they returned the sites to South Korea.
The U.S. stations some 28,500 troops on the Korean Peninsula, who serve primarily as a deterrent against the North.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org