Soil Contaminants and Control Limits

Korea has specified 21 substances that cause soil contamination, including cadmium, copper, arsenic, mercury, oils, and organic solvents, as controlled soil contaminants in the Soil Environment Conservation Act. For these substances, Korea has also prescribed “soil contamination warning limits,” describing the degree of soil contamination that may undermine human health, property, and animal and plant growth and development. Also, “soil contamination counterplan limits,” in which soil contamination has exceeded the warning limits, undermining human health and requiring measures to address the contamination. The warning limits and counterplan limits apply to Zones 1, 2, and 3 depending on the purpose of land use.2)
2) Zone 1 includes fields, paddies, orchards, pastures, building lots (residential), school sites, ditches, parks, and children’s playgrounds, and is subject to the strongest limits. Zone 2 includes forests, salterns, building lots (nonresidential), warehouses, rivers, historic ruins, physical sites, recreational sites, and miscellaneous sites. Zone 3 includes factory sites, gas station sites, roads, parking lots, railway sites, and national defense and military facilities.


Soil Contamination Limits

Looking at development of in soil contaminant designation, 11 substances, including copper and arsenic, were designated as contamination when the Soil Environment Conservation Act was enacted in 1995. Oils were further classified into BTEX and TPH in 1999, and zinc, nickel, fluorine, and organic solvents (TCE, PCE) were added in 2002, gradually expanding the list of controlled soil contaminants. From 2010, BTEX3)was divided into benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene to tighten controls regarding oils.
3) BTEX is an acronym for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which are volatile organic compounds(VOC) typically found in petroleum products

Specific Facilities Subject to Soil Contamination Control

Facilities that may contaminate soil during the process of handling soil contaminants are termed and managed as facilities subject to soil contamination control. Among these, petroleum (20,000L or more) and toxic product production and storage facilities and oil pipeline facilities, which are highly likely to cause soil contamination, are designated and specially controlled as specific facilities subject to soil contamination control in order to prevent soil contamination in advance. Once a facility is designated as a specific facility subject to soil contamination control, it must carry out soil contamination tests (every 1-5 years) and leakage tests (every 8 years) on a regular basis, and in the event that it has exceeded soil contamination warning limits or is deemed to be noncompliant in the leakage test, it must carry out soil purification and facility improvements.

As of the end of 2012 there are 22,868 specific facilities subject to soil contamination control, with petroleum accounting for 22,447 facilities (98.2%) and toxic products accounting for only 421 facilities, or 1.8%. Petroleum storage facilities consist of 15,112 gas stations (67.3%) followed by 4,567 industrial facilities (20.4%) and 2,768 miscellaneous facilities (such as heating facilities; 12.3%).

Voluntary Agreement on Soil Environment Conservation

The Ministry of Environment signed a voluntary agreement, whose main terms are in regard to voluntary soil contamination tests and fulfillment of purification responsibilities, with SK Energy, GS Caltex, S-Oil, Hyundai Oil Bank, and other major Korean oil companies in December 2002, and with Korea National Oil Corporation in December 2006. The oil companies, which account for more than 90% of Korea’s total oil distribution, and the Korea National Oil Corporation, which owns large oil storage facilities, have come to play a leading role in soil contamination prevention and restoration through this voluntary agreement, making it significantly meaningful.

Analysis of the 10-year performance of the voluntary agreement concluded with the four major oil companies in 2002 indicate that the excess rate of soil contamination warning limits, which can be described as a scale of contamination identification, was about 2.1 times higher (0.76→1.63%) in voluntary tests compared to legally prescribed tests under the Soil Environment Conservation Act. Businesses also made greater investments into soil contamination-related facilities (1.1 billion→11.4 billion) and there was an increase in environmental maintenance staff (5→26 people), suggesting that the oil industry was making greater efforts for purification and prevention of soil contamination.

Designation of Clean Gas Stations

Gas stations account for more than 60% of specified facilities subject to soil contamination control and their oil storage facilities are buried underground, making them highly vulnerable to soil contamination. The contamination, which is identified too late, creates difficulties in preventing and stopping the spread of the contamination. Moreover, most of these facilities use steel tanks and pipes, which are very susceptible to corrosion. Leakage can easily occur due to facility corrosion and aging, and any overflow, spillage, or other negligence can also cause soil contamination.

In this light, the Ministry of Environment aims to spread “clean gas stations” designed to eliminate contamination-causing factors in advance. A clean gas station reinforces contamination prevention by installing double-walled tanks, double-walled pipes, tanks, and dispenser sumps. The Ministry of Environment designated five clean gas stations in 2006 on a trial basis, and as of December 2013, a total of 461 gas stations have been designated and are operated as clean gas stations. A gas station designated as a clean gas station is provided with incentives such as a 15-year exemption from soil contamination tests, a designation plaque, and financing for the installation of prevention facilities. The spread of clean gas stations will be encouraged through such incentives.

Standard Model of a Clean Gas StationLeakage

Soil Contamination Control in Abandoned Mines

The mines that cause soil contamination are mainly abandoned metal mines, abandoned asbestos mines, and abandoned coal mines. As of 2013, Korea has 2,428 abandoned metal mines (936 prior to 2010), 423 abandoned coal mines, and 38 abandoned asbestos mines, most of which were developed before the 1940s.

In the case of abandoned metal mines, soil contamination surveys in areas surrounding the abandoned mines began in 1992 and restoration projects were implemented in severely polluted areas. By 2013, soil contamination surveys were completed for 1,070 of the abandoned metal mines. The results found that arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals exceeded the soil contamination warning and counterplan limits in 528 abandoned metal mines, and the surrounding soil and heavy metals were also detected in rivers, sediments, and agricultural produce. Mining damage prevention projects were completed for 180 of these contaminated mines, and prevention projects will also be carried out continuously regarding the other mines that have exceeded the limits.

It has been pointed out that soil contamination around abandoned metal mines affects not only farmland, river water, and groundwater, but also any agricultural produce grown in the contaminated soil. Accordingly, an agricultural produce safety survey was conducted on farmland located near 401 mines where farmland contamination was likely. The results showed that levels of arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals exceeded the limits in agricultural produce grown near 146 of the mines. Agricultural products, which heavy metal contamination was confirmed, were purchased by the government and discarded.

The 1,300 abandoned metal mines that have not yet undergone the soil contamination survey will be investigated over the next 10 years (2014-2023), and measures such as mining damage prevention projects will be taken according to the results.

A comprehensive plan on asbestos control was jointly formulated by associated government ministries when residents of areas near abandoned asbestos mines were affected by asbestos damage in 2009, and asbestos issues were raised regarding finished talc (talcum) products. A basic environmental survey was carried out in 38 abandoned asbestos mines nationwide from 2009 to 2010, and detailed investigations were completed by 2013 for 25 mines. The Mine Reclamation Corporation is carrying out soil contamination improvement projects in contaminated areas where detailed investigation found an asbestos content of more than 1% and that are subject to purification.

Areas near abandoned coal mines are at relatively high environmental risk in terms of their river ecosystems, groundwater, and farmland due to neglected coal waste and acid mine drainage. A basic environmental survey was carried out in 396 abandoned coal mines from 2010 to 2013. The remaining 27 mines will be examined in 2014 to complete the basic environmental survey. For any abandoned mine that exceeds soil limits in the basic environmental survey, a detailed soil survey will be carried out in areas surrounding the mine in order of priority, beginning with seven mines in 2014.

Soil contamination prevention projects in abandoned mines and surrounding areas are being implemented by forming a role division and cooperation system among the associated government ministries, which are the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. The Ministry of Environment carries out soil contamination investigations and detailed investigations, resident health impact surveys, and farmland contamination investigations and notifies the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and other associated institutions of the results so that mining damage prevention projects and other appropriate actions can be taken.

Events such as leakage of contaminants after the completion of mining damage prevention projects have highlighted the need for continuous follow-up management. Accordingly, in July 2005, the Ministry of Environment prepared the “Guideline on Environmental Contamination Impact Assessments in the Surroundings of Establishments after the Completion of Mining Damage Prevention Projects” to carry out follow-up environmental impact assessments regarding matters such as facility management, soil and water pollution, tailings and other movement of contaminants for five years after the completion of mining damage prevention projects.

For more information, please contact us :
Public Relations Team  Kang YuRi (82-44-201-6063)   
Last modified : 2016-11-03 22:58

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