Catholic bishops in South Korea have expressed solidarity with environmental groups who are seeking closure of one of the country’s largest zinc smelters accused of polluting the environment.
A delegation of Catholic bishops led by the national bishops’ conference’s Environmental Committee visited the site of Young Poong Seokpo Smelter in Bonghwa-gun of Gyeongsangbuk-do province in the eastern part of the country.
The prelates included Archbishop Hyginus Hee-joong Kim of Gwangju Archdiocese, Bishop John Chrisostom Hyeok-ju Kwon of Andong Diocese and Auxiliary Bishop John Bosco Shin-Ho Chang of Daegu Archdiocese.
The team visited the factory site and surrounding areas including the nearby Nakdong river and hillside.
Catholic Times of Korea reported that the bishops were shocked to know there is no trace of life in Nakdong river due to toxic chemicals flowing in from the factory. Trees on surrounding hills were either dead or yellowish with dead branches because of the toxic gas emission from the factory.
Lee Sang-sik, head of Life and Environment Coalition in Andong Diocese, briefed delegation members on the disastrous impact of the factory on the environment and Nakdong river.
“Pollution from the smelter has made it a river of death where no living creatures can exist in its waters. The pace of pollution continues to increase,” Lee said.
The smelter also poses grave threats to public health, he said, as high-concentration of metals was found in 30 meters of groundwater level.
“An unimaginable disaster is waiting to happen as it is easy for contaminated water from the factory to seep into groundwater thanks to the poor drainage system around the factory site,” Lee added.
Following about 40-minute visit, the bishops held a meeting and announced that the operation of the smelter should be stopped as soon as possible.
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However, they also called on the authorities to address the challenge of potential job loss of workers and their families in case of closure and relocation of the factory.
Archbishop Hee-joong Kim said that it remains a matter of debate whether the factory should be relocated as the “same problem will arise again.”
Young Poong Seokpo Smelter was established in 1970 and it currently produces about 400,000 tons of zinc annually.
However, environmental groups have been demanding its closure citing various reports that show toxic chemicals like cadmium and sulfuric acid, which are by-products of the zinc-smelting process, threaten the environment and public health of workers.
Rights groups also argue that toxic emissions from the factory violate the Water Environment Conservation Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Earlier following pressure from environmental groups, the Gyeongsangbuk-do provincial government ordered the closure of the factory for two months, from April 1 to May 31. The factory authority was also ordered to clean up soil and stop the flow of contaminated water into the river.
The factory is run by Young Poong Group, a leading South Korean conglomerate that owns Korea Zinc and Young Poong Corporation that together account for the production of 87 percent of zinc in the country.
In 2019, South Korea’s Environment Ministry sued the factory for allegedly fudging emissions data by colluding with air-quality analyzing firms.
An official of the company told Reuters earlier this year that they will resort to legal measures to keep the factory running as they are confident the factory hasn’t violated any rules.
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