By Sgt. 1st Class Matthew A. DavioJanuary 17, 2008
TAEAN, South Korea (Army News Service, Jan. 17, 2008) - The once-fresh sea air was now nauseating, as if the breeze carried a pungent grease smell across the Taean coast. Stones worn smooth by the ocean tides littered the beach, each one heavy with black oil that seeped through a charcoal dust that had been laid down days earlier as the first step to stem the pollution.
Ships lay at anchor offshore, and hundreds of people in protective overalls scoured the shore with rags, wiping crude oil from the beach, one small portion after another.
It was a race against time, before the tide came in and carried more oil out to sea.
On the twelfth day after the Hong Kong-registered tanker Heibei Spirit collided with a barge and spilled some 10,500 kiloliters of crude oil - the worst ecological disaster to befall the Republic of Korea - the stench and scope of pollution was mind-boggling, witnesses said.
"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 8th U.S. Army civil-military operations. "The contaminated rocks have to be cleaned off and bags full of contaminated sand taken away for the same reason."
The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. State Department were first on the scene, responding to the ROK government's requests for help with cleaning efforts. But hundreds of Soldiers already stationed across the peninsula wanted to know how they could help. Many took leave to do what they could.
Soldiers from the 19th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, the 577th Military Police Company, and firefighters from installation management commands at both Camp Red Cloud and Camp Stanley volunteered.
Yet more volunteers were needed, and officials of the 8th Army Civil Military Operations office stepped up. Through the CMO office's efforts, several Korean agencies donated food, water, protective equipment and transportation assets.
CMO officials drafted the order that allowed volunteers to take time off from their normal duty schedules to help for eight days. The CMO staffers also served as liaisons between volunteers and the agencies already on the scene.
By day 12, more than 25 Soldiers from U.S. Army Troop Command, Korea, had arrived on the scene.
"It's a great way to help our host nation and our neighbors," said Staff Sgt. Shawn Wilson of the United Nations Command Honor Guard at Yongsan.
Over the next two weeks, Soldiers from the 19th Sustainment Command; 501st Sustainment Brigade; 35th Air Defense Artillery; 18th Medical Command, and 1st Signal Bde. arrived in groups of 30 or more. They were issued protective gear and worked alongside Korean volunteers to clean oil off shoreline rocks or move bags stuffed with contaminated sand and dirty rags up the beach to a collection point.
"In any kind of natural disaster, we try to help any way we can," said Sgt. Maj. Ron McDaries, 8th U.S. Army CMO sergeant major. "We're all in this together."
The 8th Army CMO also provided translators and liaison officers who coordinated with Taean civil authorities and sent hourly reports to an 8th Army watch team about the conditions, progress and health of the Soldiers. Thanks to their efforts, none of the hundreds of Soldiers suffered any of the health problems that can occur when dealing with crude oil.
Army regulations strictly prohibit the use of military funds for missions not specifically requested by the host nation, so getting Soldiers to a clean-up site had to be done at no cost. This was made possible by donations from several Korea-based companies.
The Taean beach is calm now, clean-up efforts are complete, and white froth again punctuates the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, 8th Army officials said.
(Sgt. 1st Class Matthew A. Davio works in the 8th U.S. Army Public Affairs Office.)