South Korea fights marine pollution with consistent policies

More than 1,400 cases of marine pollution occurred in South Korea from 2017 to 2021, according to Coast Guard’s data submitted to Rep. Lee Sang-gon from the People Power Party. Rep. Lee’s office stated in a press release that an average of 271 cases happened per year, with a total of 1.7 million liters of oil leaked into the ocean during the five years in question.

In South Korea, almost 80 percent of marine pollution was from oil leakage, and partly from marine waste or noxious substances. According to Rep. Lee’s data, over 35 percent of the total marine pollutants were from an oil leakage accident that occurred near Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province on September 11, 2020. The 105 m-length overall (LOA) Responder ship caught fire and sank, discharging almost 630,000 liters of oil into the sea.

The biggest cause of marine pollution was human carelessness during sailing operations, which took up more than 36 percent of all cases.  For example, human carelessness included spilling oil during transfer from the main tank to a service or settling tank, unskilled maneuvering of machines and losing focus. Other causes included marine accidents, such as ship sinking (30 percent), and damage to ships (24 percent). 

Rep. Lee was concerned that accidents caused by human carelessness were a regular occurrence and therefore wanted the Coast Guard to strengthen efforts to cut down on human errors and curb marine pollution. However, the government said there was progress in fighting marine pollution and so does not see any need to change direction now.

Since 2019, marine pollution cases have been on a downward trend. The cases in 2021 dropped by 20 percent as compared to 2019. The total amount of oil leakage in 2021 has also decreased by 60 percent, compared to the previous year. Additionally, the percent of cases caused by human carelessness also dropped as compared to previous years. 

According to the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, cases in 2021 caused by human carelessness were 15 percent lower than that in 2016. The ministry started the anti-marine pollution campaign in 2017 with a short-term goal to reduce cases to below 40 percent in 2018, which it succeeded by achieving 35.5 percent.

Accidents happened most frequent during oil transfer between tanks, which recorded at 51 percent of all human carelessness cases in 2016. To tackle this problem, the ministry, from March 2017 onwards, started to check all tanks and pipes of old vessels, including tugboats, and to advise the installation of oil overflow prevention equipment.

Also, the ministry collaborated with the Coast Guard and government-run company Korea Marine Environment Management Corporation to produce and distribute thousands of storage bags that can hold 120 liters of oil.

An official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries’ Marine Environment Policy Division told Maritime Fairtrade the ministry is working collectively across government entities to curb marine pollution.

“Marine pollution is not a one-time event,” the official, who wished to remain anonymous so as to speak freely, said. “The government has been conducting regular investigations and check-ups of oil tanks and collecting marine waste with volunteers.”

Although he said there will be no special change in the direction of marine pollution policies for the foreseeable future, he noted that the government’s preemptive acts against possible pollution have already become an essential part of the ministry’s responsibilities.

“To prevent marine pollution, we need to carry out enforcement actions regularly, with a holistic approach. Introducing a new policy in response to a temporary event is not the solution,” the official said.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Ministry of Public Safety and Security

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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