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Minister shuns concerns over base cleanup cost

Environment Minister Yoo Seong-kyu on Wednesday sidestepped the mounting criticism over Seoul’s recent decision to shoulder the costs of cleaning up two U.S. military bases, saying attention should be focused on environmental restoration.

“From the ministry’s perspective, environmental remediation is the foremost concern, even if protocol dictates that the party which caused the environmental pollution must be responsible for the cleanup costs,” Yoon said in a press conference.

“Who carries out the cleanup efforts is a secondary issue,” he added, addressing complaints that arose after Korea agreed last Thursday to pay for the costs of cleaning up Camp Castle in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, and the Defense Reutilization and Marking Office in Busan.

The two bases, both known to be heavily contaminated with harmful chemicals such as oil and heavy metals, are part of the Land Partnership Plan signed in 2002, which aims to move U.S. forces out of populated city centers and relocate them to Camp Humphrey in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.

The minister’s remarks are expected to further fuel concerns over whether the Ministry of Environment, a body in charge of directly negotiating the plan’s terms and conditions with the U.S., is neglecting the key issue of determining who will pay the bill for the cleanup.

Worries are also rising over whether Korea is setting a negative precedent for other bases scheduled to be relocated out in the future, by continually agreeing to take responsibility for dealing with pollution caused by the U.S. forces.

In 2010, the U.S. returned Camp Hialeah in Busan, after Busan authorities agreed to pay for the costs of cleaning up the base. It reportedly took 14.3 billion won ($12.7 million) to clean up the site, more than 50 times the original estimated figures.

The miscalculations were based on data presented by the U.S. during the negotiation stages that only 0.26 percent of the base was contaminated. Though pollution levels were found to be 9.4 percent during subsequent inspections, South Korea ended up solely paying for the increased soil restoration costs.

By Sohn Ji-young (