Who is to Take Responsibility for Man-made Earthquake in Pohang-si?

P 07.05.2019 U Konstantin Asmolov


On 15 November 2018, a magnitude-5.4 earthquake struck the environs of the Pohang-si city, located in the North Gyeongsang Province. It was the second most powerful temblor in the modern history of South Korea since instrumental earthquake monitoring had begun in the nation in 1978. The most powerful earthquake occurred in 2016 in Gyeongju-si, its magnitude was 5.8. However, far more damage was caused in Pohang-si.

Fortunately, no one died, but 118 people suffered from injuries ranging in scope from minor to severe. In addition, 1,800 local residents were forced to leave their homes and live elsewhere as refugees. Overall, more than 1,500 people were affected by the earthquake. They include the injured and locals who lost their possessions or who needed to leave their wrecked homes.

Property, belonging to residents, sustained serious damage. In Pohang-si alone over a thousand homes and 38 vehicles were affected by the temblor. Residential houses in neighboring regions, roads (including the Daegu-Pohang Expressway), bridges, water supply and sewer collection systems were also damaged. Emergency services received approximately 130 calls regarding public premises that were wrecked by the earthquake. Cracks appeared in walls of government buildings and academic institutions, and the port of Yeonil-myeon temporarily suspended all cargo-processing operations because of damage sustained by its structures.

Since school buildings had to be inspected after the earthquake, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), scheduled for 16 November, was postponed by a week for the first time.  According to government assessments, the damage from the temblor amounted to 54.6 billion won or $48.3 billion. The Pohang-si branch of the Bank of Korea, on the other hand, estimated this value to be much higher, i.e. more than 300 billion won or approximately $286 billion. But this figure includes indirect economic losses.

In the year following the earthquake in Pohang-si, the area experienced approximately 100 aftershocks. As a result of these 118 people sustained injuries. On 11 February 2019, another earthquake with a magnitude of 4.6, struck South Korea.  Tremors were felt in the coastal regions of Busan and Ulsan. The main seismic event (the main shock) was followed, an hour later, by aftershocks with a magnitude of 2.5. There were no reports of damage of any type.

Reconstruction work is ongoing in Pohang-si, and around 30 local residents, affected by the earthquake, are forced to live in evacuation facilities and still suffer from psychological and physical trauma. According to a survey, conducted by the Convergence Civilization-Humanities and Social Sciences Academy of POSTECH, 80% of 500 local residents (study participants) reported suffering from psychological problems after the temblor.

Shortly after the earthquake, the scientific community started discussing whether a local operational geothermal power station was the cause of the temblor. One argument in support of this theory was that the epicenter of the earthquake was only a few hundred meters from the station. The experts claimed that water pumped into the power station at high pressure (to keep it operational) caused the fault to rupture. Some of these scholars even published their research results in Science (an international academic journal).

However, many scientists do not believe that it is possible to trigger an earthquake of this magnitude by supplying water at high pressure into a borehole. Hence, ROK’s government established a commission, headed by the Geological Society of Korea and comprised of local and international experts that included professors from the University of Colorado and Stanford University, which started researching his issue in March 2018.

On 20 March, the state commission published the results of its work. According to the findings, the Pohang-si earthquake was not a natural but a triggered temblor, caused by the operations of the geothermal power station.

The scientists concluded that the mounting pressure, which resulted from drilling and pumping of water during production of geothermal energy, gradually caused moderate seismic events. With the passage of time, enough seismic strain built up to cause the earthquake, and the tremors occurred along the fault line located under the geothermal power station.

The international research group analyzed 520 temblors that occurred in Pohang-si from January 2009 to November 2017. Approximately 240 of these earthquakes struck within 5 kilometers of the place, where South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy had been running its Enhanced geothermal system (EGS) project. These technologies have been used in Pohang-si since 2010. The system involves pumping high-pressure fluid through hot rocks thus triggering shear events in them (this process is called hydro-shearing). According to the President of the Geological Society of Korea, Kang-Kun Lee, the research group was able to identify the exact location of epicenters of 98 earthquakes out of 240, and they learned that these temblors occurred at the same time as EGS tests were being conducted at the power station. On a daily basis 900 tons of water were pumped into the earth.

The findings of the research group showed that using the hydro-shearing process on at least 5 occasions significantly altered the fault lines in this region, which first resulted in a series of mini quakes and then the temblor that struck in 2017.

In any case, the government has accepted the results of the investigation with “humility”. The EGS tests in Pohang-si, which were temporarily suspended in March 2018 when the public began to raise concerns regarding the link between this pilot project and the earthquake, will be stopped for good. The geothermal power station will also be closed, and the area where it is located will be returned to its former state.

In light of these developments, issues of responsibility and compensation for damages become increasingly relevant. Residents of Pohang-si have already filed lawsuits against the government and the operator of the geothermal power station. However, since this pilot project, which cost 18.5 billion won, was launched by both the government and the operator of the geothermal plant, Nexgeo, in 2010, the Blue House will have to bear the burden of responsibility.

Over a 5-year period, approximately $218 million will be allocated towards reconstruction of residential housing and damaged property as envisaged in earthquake recovery plans. In the meantime, statements made by the government do not mention the lawsuit, filed by the people affected by the earthquake, against the government and the operator of the geothermal power station. And these plans to eliminate the consequences of the earthquake were announced as far back as last year.

Since October of last year, a number of civic organizations began a public campaign to file lawsuits aimed at recovering compensation for moral damages. The advocates intend to hold the government fully responsible for any direct or indirect suffering caused by civil and criminal lawsuits filed. They demand that the state pay from 5,000 to 10,000 won per day to each plaintiff. For now, fewer than 2,000 people are prepared to sue the government, but if enough signatures are collected, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit may include all the residents of Pohang-si (in January the population of the city was 509,964 people). The court will thus need approximately 5 years to render a decision and the sum involved is expected to increase to 9 trillion won.

Naturally, in part, this campaign to receive such substantial compensation is being waged under the banner “this is what the President drove the country to”. Hence, it is important to understand which President is to be held responsible. A decision has been made to initiate an investigation into the implementation of the pilot project, aimed at developing technologies for commercializing geothermal energy generation, and the means used to select a suitable location for the power station.

The leader of the ruling liberal Democratic Party in parliament, Hong Young-pyo, then urged for a thorough investigation to take place, and highlighted that the project to build the geothermal station began at the end of 2010 during Lee Myung-bak’s administration. Hong Young-pyo compelled the government to thoroughly review the process used to approve the project, to conduct an investigation with respect to all the parties involved, including the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and companies such as Korea Hydro и Nuclear Power, which participated in the project, and to compensate those affected by the earthquake.

Another democrat and member of the National Assembly, Cho Jung-sik, openly stated that the disaster that befell Pohang-si was caused by incompetence and poor governance skills of the preceding conservative administration, and (note!) it had nothing to do with policies on non-nuclear power production of the ruling government.

But the author will await the results of the investigation, as the case may turn out to be more than a political propaganda tool (which those involved will try to transform it into). On one hand, it is reasonable to check whether any of Lee Myung-bak’s close friends had anything to do with the project (as it began when his administration was in power). At the time there was a series of failed initiatives for the nation’s economy, aimed at enriching a group of businessmen who attended the same parish as Lee Myung-bak and made donations towards his presidency.  On the other hand, the war that Moon Jae-in declared against nuclear energy may have pushed the nation towards such risky pilot projects. And from yet another perspective, it is unclear how long this initiative was in the works.

In the meantime, on 19 April 2019, another number of earthquakes, with the magnitude of 4.3, struck the sea floor near the Korean peninsula’s coastline.  The epicenter was in the East Sea at the depth of 32 km. The distance to the nearest sizable well-populated city of Donghae-si (in the southern part of ROK) was 54 km. According to experts, this earthquake was the most powerful out of approximately 30 temblors to strike South Korea this year.

If all of these earthquakes turn out to have a connection to the government’s policy on renewable energy, Moon Jae-in’s administration will have yet another serious issue (among others) to contend with.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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