By U.S. ArmyDecember 19, 2007
More than 25 Soldiers from U.S. Army Troop Command Korea assisted in oil clean up efforts off the coast of Taean Wednesday as the first part of an eight-day, 8th U.S. Army Operation that marks the largest and latest efforts of U.S. Soldiers assisting the Republic of Korea in their time of ecological crisis.
Since the oil spill Dec. 7, the worst ecological disaster in Korean history, Soldiers from several units have volunteered on their own to help with the clean up effort along the western coastline, including the 19th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 577th Military Police Company and firefighters from Installation Management Commands at both Camp Red Cloud and Camp Stanley.
Over the next two weeks, groups of about 30 volunteer Soldiers will be transported by bus to Taean, issued protective gear and, side-by-side with Korean workers of all ages, clean up the crude oil that has washed ashore. These Soldiers will come from the 19th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), 35th Air Defense Artillery, 501st Sustainment Brigade, 18th Medical Command and 1st Signal Brigade. All these units cleared their Soldiers to take time off of their normal duty work schedule in order to assist the ROK clean up effort.
"It's a great way to help our host nation and our neighbors," said Staff Sergeant Shawn Wilson of the United Nations Command Honor Guard at Yongsan.
The 8th U.S. Army Civil Military Operations team provides translators and liaison officers that not only coordinate with Taean civil authorities but also send hourly reports to an 8th Army Watch Team about the conditions, progress and health of the Soldiers.
"Any kind of natural disaster, we try to help any way we can," said Sergeant Major Ron McDaries, 8th U.S. Army CMO sergeant major. "We're all in this together."
Each day, Soldiers gather at 7 a.m. to receive a quick training session about the health risks presented by the oil spill and the proper safety measures to take. They ride a bus to the site, don protective gear such as air masks, rubber boots and overalls, and spend the rest of the day either cleaning oil from soccer-ball-sized rocks on the coast or carrying away heavy bags filled with oil-stained rags and sand.
"When the tide comes in, it pulls away contaminated sand and oil off the rocks, then spreads it out to other beaches, contaminating other areas," said Joe Sellen, host nation specialist for the 8th U.S. Army CMO. "The contaminated rocks have to be cleaned off, and bags full of contaminated sand taken away for the same reason."
The first mitigation stage the ROK government implemented was to cover the rocks in charcoal to absorb the oil in an ecologically safe manner. The Soldiers helped with the second stage, using rags to remove excess oil from the rocks that appeared as wet spots on the stone. At 3 p.m. the Soldiers clean themselves, change clothes, load up the buses and return to their duty stations. A new group of Soldiers repeats the process the next day, though no trips are planned for the four-day weekends.
"I volunteered because it's just a good opportunity to go out, help the South Koreans and show them the good side of the U.S. Army," said Sergeant Christopher L. Haigh, 8th U.S. Army CMO.
"It was definitely worth it," said Specialist Kiernan Custodia, of the UNC Honor Guard. "When we showed up it seemed to boost morale, and that made me feel good."
The operation was made possible by donations from several Korea-based companies. Chairmain Kim, Jong Jo, CEO of Sewoo Food Corporation donated Ramen Noodles for the Soldiers to eat during lunch. Chairman Shin In-Bum, CEO of Centax Marketing provided the overboots, groves and drinking water. Chairman Choi, Jong Keun, CEO of Phoenix Construction, provided the buses used to take the Soldiers to Taean.
"I'm proud of the volunteer Soldiers that are here," said Lieutenant Colonel Whitaker, 8th U.S. Army CMO Chief of Staff. "They're making a good contribution to the relief effort."
The oil spill was caused when the Heibei Spirit, a Hong Kong-registered tanker, collided with a crane-carrying barge that had broken free of its tugboat, causing an estimated 10,500 kiloliters of crude oil to leak from the tanker's load of 263,000 kiloliters. Soldiers across the peninsula began asking their commands how they could help, so the 8th U.S. Army created a proactive program to provide support, guidance and coordination between the volunteers and the agencies already on scene. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. State Department have been on the scene for more than a week already, per request of the ROK government.