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S. Korea Expected to Declare Oil Spill Coastline a Disaster Area

South Korean officials say they will declare a long stretch of the country's western coastline a disaster area. The move makes residents and businesses eligible for compensation as an enormous oil spill devastates wildlife and fishing resources along the coast. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, even with thousands of workers mobilized, the cleanup is expected to take months.

More than 100 boats and nearly 9,000 soldiers, police and civilians fought to limit the damage along the west coast of South Korea Monday as oil from a punctured tanker washes ashore near the city of Taean.

South Korean officials say more than 10,000 tons of crude oil are coating a 45-kilometer long stretch of coast after a barge accidentally punched holes in a giant oil tanker on Friday.

The economic and environmental costs are expected to soar, as the area is dense with fisheries and marine wildlife. The owners of several hundred shellfish farms say their entire stocks have been wiped out. Costs from a much smaller oil spill in 1995 reached $96 million.

Ji Hun-geun, of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements, is one of the many volunteers at the site. He said the surface of the sea is all black, and it is incredibly difficult to dispose of the oil by hand. He says he and other volunteers are finding dead birds everywhere, and he believes there are many areas where not a single bird has survived.

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government will do its best to spare residents the worst effects of the accident. He said the government is ready to compensate those who have been victimized by the accident.

South Korean law provides for the distribution of millions of dollars in state subsidies and relief payments after authorities formally label a region a special disaster area.

Experts say cleaning up an oil slick of this size is likely to take about two months. The residual damage from oil absorbed into the environment is expected to last far longer.

Criticism is already pointing in two directions, and is likely to grow louder in the days ahead: first, at the South Korean Samsung Heavy Industries Corporation, which operated the barge that punctured the tanker. Second, at the government, which is accused of being inadequately prepared for such a disaster, despite the lessons from the 1995 oil spill.