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Coastline is dead after S. Korean oil spill

Chung Hwan-hyang surveyed the damage from South Korea's worst oil spill, saddened by the knowledge that the oyster farm she and her husband ran for 30 years was lost.
A farm is covered with crude oil after an oil spill in Taean
An oyster farm southwest of Seoul, South Korea, is covered with crude Monday after the tanker spill last Friday.Ho / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chung Hwan-hyang surveyed the damage from South Korea's worst oil spill, saddened by the knowledge that the oyster farm she and her husband ran for 30 years was lost.

"My oysters are all dead," the 70-year-old woman said Sunday as she and thousands of others cleaned foul-smelling oil from Shinduri Beach. "I cried and cried last night. I don't know what to do."

Some 2.7 million gallons of crude gushed into the ocean after a collision Friday between a barge and a supertanker carrying more than 260,000 tons of crude oil.

For Chung and other residents of Taean County, nearly 100 miles southwest of Seoul, the spill brought despair and shock at how the pollution shattered lives and businesses.

The South Korean government declared a "state of disaster" as the oil slick began hitting the shore early Saturday, coming in waves of mucky, stinking crude. The spill now threatens the livelihood of an area that includes beaches like Shinduri and better-known Mallipo, which is considered one of South Korea's most scenic areas and serves as an important stopover for mallards, great crested grebes and others migrating birds.

More than 20 million tourists a year visit the area, providing an economic boost to the area's 63,800 residents heavily dependent on fishing and seafood farming.

'This ocean is dead'
At Mallipo Beach, about a 30-minute drive from Shinduri Beach, raw fish restaurant owner Kim Eung-ku was helping with the cleanup, but said he feared the situation was hopeless.

"We have no choice but to leave this place," he said. "This ocean is dead."

Among those affected by the slick were 181 aquatic farms producing abalone, seaweed, littleneck clams and sea cucumbers, according to Lee Seung-yop, a Taean County official. There are about 4,000 aquatic farmers.

No detailed damage estimates for the area as a whole have been released, though Lee said officials feared it would be substantial.

Ku Bon-chun, chief of a local fishermen's association at Mohang Port near Mallipo, said 32 acres of aquatic farms raising abalone, oysters and other marine life there were all submerged by oil-coated waters.

"I feel like my heart is empty," he said. "These fishing farms are all finished."

He said some fishermen had been hauling in crab catches worth up to $5,400 a day. "But they are all gone," he said.

Tourists shunned the beach, too, because of news of the disaster, said Chun Kwang-ho, who runs a 10-room motel nearby.

"My business is ruined," he said. "People have repeatedly called me to cancel their reservations and ask me about what's going on here."

Chun said that hundreds — maybe thousands — of seagulls and other birds used to come at this time of year to the beach, where tourists would feed them.

"That really looked splendid," he said. "But you see now there are no seagulls and birds at all. Seagulls don't come here because of this terrible smell."

Chun showed two dead birds coated in dark oil. He said they were mallards.

"I feel so bad and sorry for them," he said.

Thousands help clean up
Some of the 7,500 volunteers who helped scoop up the oil from the beach, including civil servants and members of the coast guard, police and military, contended with headaches and nausea from the petroleum's stench.

Still others worked aboard 105 ships along South Korea's western coast trying to clean the sea, plugging the leaks in the tanker, dropping oil fences into the ocean and using chemicals to break up the slick. The nation's previous biggest spill, less than half the size of this one, was in 1995.

The South Korean government has stopped short of promising direct aid, saying any compensation would have to be paid by insurance policies covering the two ships and an international fund that covers oil pollution damage.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, however, instructed officials to help afflicted fish and seafood farmers receive quick compensation, his office said in a news release. No details were given.

Chung, the oyster farmer, said her damage would amount to $21,800, with the oil slick appearing just as oyster harvesting had begun.

She said her family had no means to restart the business.

"I can't describe how I feel now," she said. "This is what helped me raise my children and educate them.