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Ministry to complete cleanup of ex-U.S. bases this week

The defense ministry said Thursday it is scheduled to finish cleaning up former U.S. military bases returned to South Korea by the end of this week.

The ministry said 16 former U.S. installations have been cleaned up after more than two and a half years of work, covering 425.7 million square meters. One other base will join the list by July next year, it added.

The U.S. forces here have returned 48 of 80 designated bases amid an ongoing relocation of their troops, and 17 of those 48 showed soil contamination levels that exceeded South Korean legal standards, the ministry said.

The ministry added it commissioned Korea Rural Community Corp. and Korea Environment Corp. to do the remediation work for about 172 billion won ($148.7 million). It plans to carry out similar cleanup projects for bases that will be returned after 2012.

Thirteen of the 16 bases are located in the northern part of Gyeonggi Province near the border with North Korea, while two are in Seoul and one is in Gangwon Province in the northeastern part of South Korea.

The ministry said the former U.S. installations will be sold to local governments or contractors, and public facilities, parks, research centers and homes will be built there.

“The environmental remediation of the returned U.S. bases has been the largest cleanup project in South Korea,” the ministry said in a statement. “Our top priority has been the health of local residents and we wanted to ensure the safety of these bases.”

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed across South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War. It ended on an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, leaving North and South Korea technically at war.

South Korea and the U.S. signed a deal in 2004 to relocate Yongsan Garrison, the U.S. military headquarters in central Seoul, and the 2nd Infantry Division in camps north of Seoul to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, some 70 kilometers south of the capital.

The timeline for relocating U.S. bases, part of a global U.S. troop realignment for strategic flexibility, had been readjusted several times because of slow construction at Camp Humphreys and funding concerns.

In March this year, the allies reached a new agreement to complete the relocation project by the end of 2016.

Environmental contamination in and around U.S. bases became a major source of concern for local residents this year, after retired U.S. soldiers claimed that they had helped dump toxic chemicals in the 1970s. 

(Yonhap News)