This past weekend, an environmental massacre punished the west coast of South Korea. A quaint beach town, called Mallipo, once known for its luscious beaches and rocky cliffs, now lies helplessly under a layer of crude oil. An oil tanker collided with a barge, and consequently 10,000 tons of oil leaked into yet another of our precious and sacred (and quickly diminishing) natural habitats.
The San Francisco Bay oil spill had already got my heart pumping with a sense of urgency. This one in Korea, a mere 100 miles from where I live hurled me over the edge. I heard the news late Sunday night, around 2am, and immediately was overcome with this need to go there, experience it with all its toxicity, take pictures and help out however possible. My only constraint was work at 4pm, but even that wasn't enough to stop me from venturing to the site.
The emotion built up as the night passed, and I was unable to sleep. I tossed around, and my mind wondered (wandered) about. At 5:30am I mounted my bicycle and rode through the icy morning breeze to the downtown bus terminal, set on catching the first bus out of town. On the 6am bus, my nerves calmed and the bumpy ride rocked me to sleep.
One concern was getting back on time, given that I was on a tight schedule. 6am-4pm is ten hours to work with. A three or more hour trip each way, plus the infrequent bus schedule, and the complete lack of knowledge about where to go. But another concern superseded that one - getting to the site of the disaster and helping out any way I can. Showing my solidarity and giving my support. Spreading the story through pictures and words about how this preventable disaster has affected an innumerable amount of people.
In Taean, I transferred to a local bus. It wound through unimpressive terrain. The road sign read Mallipo 12km. A jolt ran through me, excitement, uncertainty, and concern. Mallipo 4km. Worries were gone, pure adrenaline took over. I thought, show me, show me what has happened here.
I got off the bus, not knowing what to expect, but expecting the worst. Police, ambulance, and military commotion were everywhere. I wasn’t sure if the area was blocked off or not, but I trudged forward. Already, the noxious crude oil scent engulfed my lungs. A minor headache ensued, but my determination still raged. Marching past the stocked supplies intermixed with oily debris, I finally reached the beachfront. I stood awestruck.
The surrealistic scene of a vast oil-slicked beach framed by the blackened ocean was too much. Clusters of uniformed workers scattered across the terrain. This was a huge disaster. I timidly withdrew my camera from my jacket pocket, and snapped pictures in every direction. By this point the headache evolved into dull chest pains. I humbly crawled down the beachfront, avoiding the oil as much as I could. A sense of despair loomed as each oil-bearing wave splashed ashore.
There were two main methods of cleanup. One used large white oil absorbent squares, which the volunteers meticulously laid over each centimeter of sand, soaking up some (but not all) of the oil. The other method used shovels, scooping the top layer of oil into buckets, which were then passed in a chain line and emptied into larger vessels. These were siphoned into tanks and hauled away. Both methods proved a slow process. Even with the 500+ helpers, this beach alone will take an estimated 2 months to clean up (and will never be the same).
I had to help out. I went up to a booth, and said in Korean, "I want to help". My message was clear enough (after a few repetitions) and someone showed me where to suit up. After I was handed protective wear, a mask, rubber gloves, and boots, I was ready to get to work. The system seemed unorganized - just help where you can. I saw a chain line form, so I jumped in. I passed buckets of oil up the line. There were buckets piling up at the end of the line, so I ran up there and hauled buckets up the stair and emptied them into the larger vessels.
It was the first time I was in such close contact with oil. I noticed how it slopped out of one bucket into the other like mud or thick cake batter. I had to bang the bucket a few times to get it all out. The harder I worked, the harder I breathed, and the more my lungs ached. The oil’s toxicity made it even harder, and I thought how everyone was feeling this same discomfort. But they continued their perilous task. My uniform was covered in oily muck by the time I had to go.
Nationality, age, sex, none of this was important here. We all shared the common goal - to clean up this tragic disaster. Make the beach how it was. Make right the accident. This was the one light in the situation - Seeing everyone volunteer their energy, even endangering their health, all for the sake of this once heralded Korean coastline.
Daniel is an English Teacher, originally from California, U.S. (Editor's Note: For information on how you can help either by volunteering or sending a donation of money or stuff to absorb the oil, check out the K4E Forum or click on http://www.korea4expats.com/forum-south-korea/ways-we-can-help-with-the-oil-spill-clean-up-in-mallipo-south-korea-t308.0.html
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