|The site for a new airport in Jeju Island's Seongsan District / Korea Times file|
By Ko Dong-hwan
The Ministry of Environment has rejected the latest environmental assessment report by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which is pushing to construct a second international airport on Jeju Island. The reasons behind the decision were related to preservation of the island's wildlife and geological traits, as well as potential pollution caused by the increased air traffic.
The environment ministry said on July 20 that it rejected the report, after having examined it with experts from the Korea Environment Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Research, both state-owned environmental research agencies. The three parties began examining the report submitted last June.
The environment ministry said that the land ministry failed to provide thorough enough explanations, especially on several critical issues, on how to limit the environmental impact of the planned airport's construction and operations.
According to the environment ministry, the report lacked explanation as to how to protect local birds and their natural habitats while securing the safety of airplanes for users.
The ministry said that the report also failed to fully prepare for potential cases of noise pollution coming from the planes in flight, the experts said, calling the results of the model-based tests "erroneous."
The report also failed to explain how to protect the island's indigenous narrow-mouthed or boreal digging frogs ("meng-ggongi" in Korean), which could be affected by the plan. The amphibians are listed as class II endangered species nationally, facing the second-most imminent threat of extinction after class I endangered species in the country.
|Rep. Sim Sang-jung of the social democratic minor opposition Justice Party speaks during a rally led by civic activists in front of the National Assembly in Seoul, June 16. They demanded the cancellation of the new airport construction plan on Jeju Island. Korea Times file|
The report also failed to explain how to preserve the volcanic island's unique underground web of narrow empty channels between rock formations, which store freshwater underground and are believed to act as a "breathing channel" for the island's geological base. More than 130 of such channels were discovered near the proposed airport site in 2020.
"The report needed more explanations as to how the airport will curb the loud noise coming from the airplanes, whether it could be possible to capture the narrow-mouthed frogs living near the construction site and move them to different habitats and whether it will be safe to drink the underground freshwater (when the construction might affect the safety of the rock foundations below and near the site)," said an official in the environmental assessment division of the ministry.
The land ministry plans to build the new airport in the island's easternmost district of Seongsan. Over 5.45 million square meters in area, the new airport will have a single runway stretching 3.2 kilometers. The ministry plans to invest over 5.1 trillion won ($4.4 billion) into the second airport. It had originally hoped to start construction in 2017 and open the new airport by 2025.
In June 2019, it submitted a first draft of the construction plan's environmental assessment report to the environment ministry before submitting the latest version in September 2019, only to be turned down. The environment ministry rejected more updated versions of the report in December 2019 and June 2020.
The construction plan has been facing a string of condemnation by environmental activists, the island's residents and liberal and progressive lawmakers since its introduction. They said that the airport, once complete, will not only disrupt the ecology of the Seongsan area but also generate various problems, such as noise pollution and more waste than the island can actually handle. Some activists have also argued that the land ministry's previous environment assessment reports deliberately omitted some of the island's ecological and geological traits that should be preserved.
Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong has been pushing for the plan regardless of the opposition. The governor said on July 20 that he "wasn't pleased with the environment ministry's rejection of the plan's environmental assessment report" and that "the next president and new administration (elected in 2022) will have to push forward with the plan."