Korea Environmental Remediation Technology Co., Ltd.

[Environmental Interview] Hee-Chul Choi, Chairman of the Korea Soil Remediation Industry Cooperative

Source : Land Daily

Publication Date : 2023.12.15 10:00

“Fluoride Soil Standards Must Be Reassessed Fairly”
Prioritizing ‘Public Safety’ and Ensuring Objectivity/Transparency in Procedures is Crucial
Improper Treatment May Pose Risks to Human Health and Ecosystems
U.S. National Research Council Warns of Potential Risks of Fluoride

[Land Daily Reporter Byungkyu Sun] The government is planning to ease the fluoride (F) standards among soil contamination items by the first half of next year, causing the soil remediation industry to be on high alert.

Currently, a significant portion of the soil remediation market is occupied by the fluoride sector, and any misstep could devastate the industry.

Under the Soil Environment Conservation Act, the fluoride soil contamination standard for residential and agricultural land is 400mg/kg.

If fluoride is detected above 400mg/kg on development sites, soil remediation companies transport the contaminated soil to treatment facilities for proper processing.

The remediation industry values fluoride soil remediation work but is concerned that if the process is carried out without scientific and transparent procedures, ‘public safety’ could be compromised.

We spoke with Hee-Chul Choi, chairman of the Korea Soil Remediation Industry Cooperative, to hear the industry’s position on fluoride risks and their requests to the government.


Hee-Chul Choi, Chairman of the Korea Soil Remediation Industry Cooperative

  • The government is pushing for the adjustment (regulatory reform) of fluoride standards in contaminated soil. What is the position of the cooperative, which consists of domestic remediation companies?

▲ The soil remediation industry clearly opposes the adjustment and relaxation of fluoride standards in response to some development-oriented demands.

It is inappropriate for the government to consider relaxing only one of the 23 soil contamination items, fluoride.

In particular, the issue of adjusting fluoride standards requires national and social consensus.

We believe that sufficient opinions from stakeholders such as the government, academia, industry (remediation companies, research institutions), and related organizations should be collected through proper procedures such as discussions and public hearings.

Furthermore, considering the public’s awareness of environmental conservation, we hope that all citizens can be guaranteed the right to live safely in a pleasant environment.

  • What is your opinion on the claim that it hinders development projects? Also, what are the risks and secondary contamination issues of fluoride?

▲ The development industry is demanding an increase (relaxation) of the fluoride soil contamination standard of 400mg/kg, citing delays in construction periods and increased construction costs due to the remediation of fluoride-contaminated soil, and is strongly urging the government to relax the standards.

Currently, contaminated soil is mostly excavated and transported outside the construction site for remediation by soil remediation companies, so the claim of construction period delay is unconvincing.

As of September 15, 2022, according to data from the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s project implementation approval, 37 out of 162 project sites were subject to environmental impact assessments, and contamination was found at 10 sites. Thus, only 6.2% of the project sites require remediation.

According to a report by Hanyang University’s Industry-University Cooperation Foundation titled “Evaluation of Fluoride Soil Standards Through In-Depth Analysis of Domestic and International Cases,” fluoride, when excessively ingested, can cause dental damage or fluorosis, as well as generate substances that induce cell death, create cell destruction mechanisms, and produce reactive oxygen species leading to oxidation and inflammatory precursors.

Fluoride, being a highly toxic substance (used in pesticides), can severely impact bones, teeth, the nervous system, reproductive organs, the immune system, liver, kidneys, lungs, and the gastrointestinal tract when inhaled through the food chain.

Furthermore, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) report estimates that fluoride exposure affects almost all human organs, with scientific studies demonstrating its potential harmfulness.

If proper soil contamination management for fluoride is not implemented, the fluoride concentration will increase due to migration to groundwater and crops. Agricultural products grown in soil using groundwater with excessive fluoride for domestic and agricultural use can accumulate fluoride, ultimately causing health problems for humans.

  • There is also debate about whether naturally occurring fluoride in the soil should be remediated.

▲ Naturally occurring fluoride in the soil poses no major issue if left undisturbed. However, when disturbed and fragmented due to development and construction, the surface area of the soil increases thousands of times, becoming problematic.

If fragmented fluoride-contaminated soil is not properly treated and is secondarily processed, such as being buried in farmland, it can dissolve in water and, as mentioned earlier, contaminate groundwater and surface water, eventually posing a fluoride risk to humans.

  • There is significant concern that expanding (relaxing) the fluoride remediation standard from 400mg/kg to 500mg/kg in residential areas could halve the remediation market.

▲ That’s correct. Domestic soil remediation companies could face a wave of bankruptcies.

Although the Soil Environment Conservation Act has been in full effect since 1996, the soil remediation industry inherently relies on the occurrence of contaminated soil for work (remediation project orders), resulting in a small scale.

The period when a significant amount of fluoride-contaminated soil emerged was about 4-5 years ago during the height of redevelopment and reconstruction.

Although the fluoride remediation market has unusually grown in recent years, it is currently in a lull due to the construction market downturn. Previously, the focus was on remediating soil contaminated with oil, heavy metals, etc., primarily from gas stations, military bases, and refineries.

Fluoride remediation requires off-site treatment facilities and washing equipment, necessitating significant costs for land acquisition, construction, and facility investment.

Currently, 25 companies own off-site remediation facilities, and there are 40 operational off-site facilities.

Most remediation companies have built off-site remediation facilities with bank loans to handle fluoride remediation. If fluoride standards are relaxed, most remediation companies will face immense damage and potential bankruptcy, and employees will lose their jobs.

  • Is there anything you would like to emphasize in conclusion?

▲ Environmental standards, strictly established to provide a pleasant environment for the public, should not be changed at the whim of specific groups. They are promises set by the state to protect the safety of its citizens and the ecosystem.

While South Korea currently designates 23 pollutants, the U.S. designates 109. It is logical to add more pollutants in line with global trends.

Nevertheless, if standards must be reassessed, it should be conducted objectively and transparently with a focus on ‘public safety first’ by the Ministry of Environment, the National Institute of Environmental Research, and other responsible agencies and expert research institutions. There should be a sufficient consensus and agreement with academia, related organizations, and the industry.

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