Cleaning Up…For The National Cause

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  • A First Hand Account Of Fighting South Korea’S  Worst Oil Spill

In the month of December 2007 about 10,000 tons of crude oil was spilled from a Hong Kong registered tanker HEBEI SPIRIT about 9 KM off the coast of South Korea in the Yellow Sea. The worst environmental disaster in the history of South Korea happened when the supertanker laden with 260,000 tons of crude oil was a banged by a wayward floating crane, which was adrift, puncturing several cargo tanks in the process.  Crude oil gushed out from the leaking tanks into the calm waters just off Mallipo beach, the most beautiful beach in South Korea. The sea was literally covered with mucky oil causing severe damage to the marine life and also disrupting the migration pattern of migrating birds.


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A View of Pristine beach


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A day well spent…


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Cleaning up the last remnants…


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It is our team at work…


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That’s me in the centre…


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Readying for days work.. 


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Pumping in water to wash the sands 


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Our team busy cleaning up.. 


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The Pristine Mallipo beach 


Most of the oil was contained in the sea itself and sucked into other tanks within few days of the disaster due to the coordinated efforts by the Government, coast guard and volunteers. Also the leaky holes in the damaged tanker were patched up to prevent further spillage and also to keep it afloat.  More than 100 coast guard and other ships were galvanized into action to contain the spill. However, all these efforts could not prevent the slick from reaching the white and virgin sands of the Mallipo beach contaminating every nook and corner of the beach. 


As one can see from the AP Photos (Titled "Cleaning up at the earnest, Contaminated Mallipo waters and Scooping up the crude") enclosed, the extent of pollution was very large. But it did not prevent the spirited South Koreans from mobilizing their population, voluntary organizations and government machinery to do the clean up, to restore their most famous beach to its former glory.  Each company and corporate worth their salt pitched in with money and more important, manpower with groups of volunteers being sent in batches.


The most difficult part of any spill of this magnitude is not collecting the oil per se.; It is the after effect of oil getting into the stones, rocks, crevices and every possible cavity on the beach and also percolating down into the porous sands. Hence it requires old fashioned, laborious and time consuming hand cleaning to clean each and every pebble, rock and the vast amount of sand to rid them of last traces of crude oil. It is dirty, smelly and to some extent toxic as a group of about 200 managers and workers from my company, Samsung Heavy Industries who volunteered on a cold January day to help out, discovered.


We started in late evening from Geoje island and reached the beach by midnight and camped overnight. Early morning we started off to the beach after breakfast with full protective gear which consisted of water proof overalls, cotton gloves covered by another set of rubber ones, water proof gum boots, face mask (to keep away the smell) and cardboard boxes absorbent mats (which absorb the oil) and other implements to dig the sand and overturn the rocks.  The complete posse of men and women were divided into 8 teams and each team given a specific sector to handle with a leader in charge.  To my surprise I realized that there are more volunteer groups including volunteers from Old Peoples associations, young school children, students and of course volunteers from various corporations like us. It seemed as if the whole country has been geared up to battle this monumental challenge. At first sight in the early morning light, the Mallipo beach looked pristine and calm from a distance. However, as we reached the beach and had closer look at the beach, the true scale of the devastation sank in gradually. The stench of the crude oil was everywhere though not overpowering. The dark thick crude oil was Omni present, in the sands, the rocks the steep cliff faces?wherever one can think of.


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Cleaning up at the earnest…


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Scooping up the crude from the beach


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Contaminated Mallipo waters..(AP)


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Time for a quich chow…


We got down to the business by rigging up a few petrol driven portable pumps which pumped in sea water into the beach into long trenches dug by the excavators in the sand.  Then we stuck the water hoses into the loosened sands to drive out the crude and the water-oil mix which was collected into small reservoirs where the crude floating on top was removed using the absorbent mats. The clean water then percolated back into the sands. One set of volunteers went with shovels and pickaxes to overturn the rocks and clean them up rock by rock with hands using the absorbent mats. Another set gathered the pebbles and cleaned them up one by one.  It was a huge coordinated activity where everyone knew what to do and did it systematically and methodically. Everybody worked; there were no leaders only workers. So we achieved considerable progress by lunch time when we broke off for a typical Korean lunch of rice, soup, kimchi, fish and vegetables on a field kitchen set up nearby. After lunch, it was back to the grind till 4 PM till we could finish a large swathe of beach.  The cleared areas were marked with white tapes so that further set of people coming in know where to work. After light snacks we marched to the buses and returned home with a sense of satisfaction of contributing to the national cause.


Few lessons worth emulating which I observed during the whole exercise: The perseverance and business like attitude of Korean people, the no nonsense approaches.  There was military like precision, well planned and coordinated to complete the job in hand to attack something akin to a national disaster. Minimum fuss, hard work and single minded determination of the Koreans to undo something which was destroying their prime beach and environment. Extremely adorable to say the least, as you can see from the photographs enclosed.


Acknowledgements: Associated Press(AP) for 3 photographs as mentioned in the article. Rest of the photographs from authors collection.

Author: Cdr GP Mallya(Retd)- South Korea