12/12/2007, 00.00
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Disaster area in Korea, more than 50 kilometres of coastline coated in oil

Five days into the disaster more than 10,000 soldiers and volunteers are working non-stop to clean up the beaches. There are fears the wind might spread the oil slick. The local economy, which is based on tourism, fishing and fish farming, is wiped out. Local towns don’t know what is in store for them next.

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – More than 10,000 residents, soldiers and volunteers are working to clean blackened beaches about 150 km (95 miles) south-west of Seoul and remove oil from a nature reserve five days after a barge carrying a crane punched three holes in the oil tanker Hebei Spirit, spilling 10,500-tonnes into the sea.

Official sources said progress has been made and that oil had been removed from about 70 percent of Mallipo Beach, one of the worst hit areas.

Thousands of residents helped with the clean-up, saying there was nothing else to do now that tourism had died in a region famed for its sandy beaches and that its fisheries had ground to a halt.

In just a few hours the economy of an entire region has been wiped out. Hotels in the region are vacant and several restaurants that catered to tourists posted signs in their windows reading: "The government needs to pay".

“There's no telling how long it will take for things to come back to normal. It could take five years, 10 years—we just don't know,” said Park Young-jun, a village mayor.

Some beaches were coated with crude some 10 cm (4 inches) deep whilst the air was foul with the stench of sulphur. Other are littered with dead fish and waterfowl covered in oil.

Cost guard officials said that the wind died down yesterday providing a lull in the oil spreading. So far some 50 kilometres of coastline have already been covered.

But tomorrow winds are expected to shift again and could push the oil slick further south into areas spared hitherto.

The coast guard has erected oil fences to block further expansion of the oil slick into Cheonsu Bay, a natural habitat for migratory birds.

The government declared the region a disaster area pledging maximum assistance to contain the pollution and compensation for residents and fishermen. It also said it would provide the province with 6.9 billion won (US$ 7.6 million) from its reserves and special tax revenues for the clean-up.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visited the coastal regions and praised the efforts by the army and volunteers, promising maximum support.

The leak is estimated to be about a third of the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of crude oil onto Alaskan shores, the costliest on record. The clean-up alone from that disaster cost around US$ 2.5 billion whilst the total cost, including fines and claims settlement, is estimated at US$ 9.5 billion.

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