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Steel or the environment?

June 08,2019
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The main entrance to Hyundai Steel in Dangjin, South Chungcheong. [NEWS1]
Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

What should I do? I feel frustrated when I am asked a question without an answer. I feel unfair when pressed on why I cannot solve it.

It must be how the steel industry would feel. Recently, South Chungcheong, North Gyeongsang and South Jeolla told Hyundai Steel and Posco facilities in the provinces to suspend operation for 10 days. In the process of maintaining the blast furnace, they discharged pollutants through an emergency safety valve called “bleeder.” It is a lawful action according to the Air Environment Conservation Act. Did it solve the problem?

The bleeder, installed on top of the blast furnaces at steel mills, serves as a valve to release steam like one on an electric pressure cooker. It prevents explosions by automatically opening when unusual pressure builds up inside the furnace. While everything discharged to the air from the steel mill needs to go through the dust collector, the emergency valve is recognized as an exception. The point here is whether furnace maintenance is an emergency.

When the furnace gets maintenance once every month or two, strong pressured steam is injected into the furnace. It is to prevent the remaining gas in the furnace from exploding when combined with external air. The bleeder needs to be opened to release the steam and remaining gas. This is what environmental groups point out. The steel mills release pollutants under the excuse of maintenance.

Steel mills claim that it is inevitable for safety, and all steel mills around the world do the same thing. In fact, it is hard to say the amount of discharged gas is significant. It is equivalent to a mid-sized car’s emission for 10 days when operating for eight hours a day. There is no clear evidence that the air around steel mills worsened because of this. However, environmental groups wouldn’t condone the obvious discharge of pollutants.

The problem is whether there is an alternative. Building a factory won’t find an answer. A dust collecting facility cannot be easily built over a furnace that is over 100 meters (328 feet) tall. It is practically impossible with current technology. Then what?

Should they stop operation until it is possible? When the furnace is stopped for 10 days, molten metal will solidify, and it will take at least three months to reopen it. It would incur about 800 billion won ($675 million) in losses per furnace.

The civil servants were faithful to their duties. In late March, the Ministry of Environment released the results from pollutant emission surveys for each business. Hyundai Steel’s Dangjin, South Chuncheong, steel mill was first, and Posco’s Gwangyang, South Jeolla, and Pohang, North Gyeongsang, steel mills came in third and fourth. Environmental groups reported them afterwards. Local government officials conducted a field investigation and the Environmental Ministry found violations. The law is the law, and if they are not satisfied, they should pursue the case through a trial and lawsuit.

Each member did his or her job faithfully, and the problem grew. There was no effort to find an alternative or to modify policy. The Ministry of Industry expressed concerns, and the Office of Policy Coordination is looking at the case. The clash of the environment and economy is nothing new. Have they been unwilling or incompetent?

In the current administration, it has become a trend to order factories causing environmental problems to suspend operations. Yeongpung Seokpo Refinery in Bonghwa county, North Gyeongsang, which produces 30 percent of the zinc in Korea, was ordered to suspend operations for 120 days. If enforced, the factory will have to close for one year for preparation and resumption. I wonder if the impact on the industry and local economy was considered. I am not saying environmental damage should be condoned for the sake of the economy. The businesses need to be punished for wrongdoing. But I suggest considering alternatives.

As companies must be environmentally sensitive, environmental policy needs to be economically sensitive. I vividly remember the case of salamanders on Mount Cheonseong, where ecological fundamentalism hindered a planned railway construction plan. It may be excessive to compare the steel industry case to this. However, I am worried that the incident may be linked to environmental extremism, as the government removes weirs and phases out nuclear energy despite scientific arguments.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 7, Page 30