SEOUL, May 18 (Xinhua) -- The U.S. military base in Yongsan, located in the heart of the South Korean capital Seoul, part of which the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) has returned to South Korea, turned out to be full of carcinogens, a local broadcaster KBS reported Wednesday.
An investigation by the Ministry of Environment showed that the level of benzene and phenol, detected around the residences in the South Post, a part of the Yongsan garrison which the USFK returned in February, was respectively 3.4 times and 2.8 times higher than the standard required for a park.
The total petroleum hydrocarbon (TPH) was found at concentrations 29 times higher than the standard.
Under the Yongsan base relocation agreement signed in 2004, the United States launched the return of the site in 2020. Until now, slightly over 10 percent of the total area has been returned to South Korea.
The U.S. military bases, including the USFK headquarters in the Yongsan district, have been moved to a new garrison in Pyeongtaek, 70 km south of Seoul.
The South Korean government of President Yoon Suk-yeol, who relocated his office to the previous defense ministry building in Yongsan right after taking office on May 10, planned to open a park at the returned U.S. military garrison site in Yongsan.
The government planned to get back 548,000 square meters of land near the presidential office by the end of June, aiming to temporarily open part of the land, including residences, school, and ball park used by the U.S. troops, to the general public as a park in September.
The soil and underground water pollution in the site, which far exceeded the standard for a park, raised worries about public health and safety.
According to a local daily Kyunghyang Shinmun, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport planned to take makeshift measures to lessen the contamination by capping the land with asphalt, precast concrete paver and grass, and also restricting the time people can stay in the park.
The newspaper said people can physically inhale hazardous substances, which float in the air, as the polluted soil is not completely cleaned.
The U.S. military bases pollution has been a longstanding source of conflict between Seoul and Washington as the United States refrained from taking responsibility for the contamination.
South Korea has demanded that the U.S. side pay the clean-up costs according to the International Environmental Law, but the United States defied it citing the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), under which the U.S. government only pays the cost for the pollution that is urgently and substantively dangerous to health.
The SOFA, signed in 1966 between the two allies, neither offers South Koreans the right to investigate or access the U.S. military base when pollution accident occurs, nor guarantees information sharing or access to information by South Koreans. ■