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S. Korea oil cleanup delayed by pay dispute

Fishermen briefly stopped assisting the South Korean oil cleanup efforts after not receiving any compensation from the government for fuel.
South Korea Oil Spill
South Korean soldiers try to remove dense crude oil near Mallipo beach in Taean, west of Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday.Lee Jin-man / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ji Chul-sang stared at his fishing boat firmly anchored at a small western port Tuesday, refusing to help clean up water sullied by oil in South Korea's worst-ever spill.

"Our livelihoods have already been threatened. We cannot pay for fuel to sail our boats to retrieve oil," said Ji, who previously made a living by catching blue crabs and fish.

Ji and other fishermen briefly stopped assisting the cleanup efforts after not receiving any compensation from the government for fuel, and dozens also staged a protest visit to the Taean County office.

"We don't know how we'll manage to live. This ocean has been everything for us," said Park Jin-woo, a fisherman at Cheollipo Port who visited the county office.

After hours of debate, the fishermen agreed late Tuesday to resume helping with the cleanup after an insurance company said it would pay for their fuel.

'Special disaster area' decreed
Their plight could also be eased after the South Korean government declared the region Tuesday a "special disaster area," clearing the way for state assistance.

"We will make utmost efforts to ensure that the cleanup operation ends quickly," Government Administration and Home Affairs Minister Park Myung-jae said in a televised announcement.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visited the area and instructed officials to make efforts to quickly recover from the disaster and compensate residents, presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon quoted Roh as saying at a Cabinet meeting.

Lakes of oil were still visible Tuesday on the water's surface off the western coast despite the efforts of thousands of recovery workers, soldiers and volunteers. Some 66,000 barrels (2.7 million gallons) of crude oil were released into the water after a collision Friday between an oil supertanker and a barge.

About 9,000 people were helping to mop up the muck together with more than 100 ships and several helicopters, Cho said.

The exact damage figure was still not known, but was expected to be enormous given that the spill blackened most of beaches in the area and severely harmed the ecosystem.

10 percent of oil recovered
As of Monday, about 6,325 acres of aquatic seafood farms had been either destroyed or severely damaged, while dead oil-coated birds and fish started appearing on beaches.

An insurance company for the Hong Kong-registered supertanker Hubei Spirit and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds, an intergovernmental organization that South Korea participates in, will pay the bulk of the compensation, said Lee Sang-ho, a spokesman at the state-run Marine Pollution Response Corp. in Seoul.

The insurance company can later request that the owner of the barge — Samsung Co. — pay for damages following a court hearing to determine which ship was responsible for the accident, Lee said.

The spill took place when the tanker was slammed by the barge that came unmoored from its tugboat in rough seas about 7 miles off Cheollipo.

About 760 tons of oil had been collected by Tuesday, meaning that less than 10 percent of the total spill was retrieved, Cho said. More oil was also gathered by special absorbent mats placed on beaches and had evaporated.

"The oil is spreading far and wide and we'll just do our best to contain it," he said.