President Moon Jae-in ordered the government on Tuesday to take extraordinary measures to fight fine dust pollution that has choked the country for days.
Moon received an urgent briefing from Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae on particulate matter problems for about 50 minutes, a presidential spokesman said.
Moon called for interagency efforts to curb the pollution and reduce damage, including the installation of high-capacity air purifiers in more daycare centers and schools.
“The government should respond immediately, rather than clinging to long-term responses, to people’s demand when it explosively increases,” he was quoted as saying by spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.
South Korea is expected to post the worst ultrafine dust pollution on the day, according to the state-run National Institute of Environmental Research.
Seven major cities including Seoul suffered from all-time high concentrations of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) in the atmosphere as of 7 p.m., the institute said.
Earlier in the day, officials said the government is moving to designate fine dust concentrations as a disaster in law, part of its countermeasures to the nation’s worsening air pollution problem.
If fine dust pollution is legally recognized as a disaster, the government will work out concrete criteria for damage assessment and support measures, the officials informed of the matter said.
“A new law calling for fine dust concentrations to be included among social disasters has been presented to the National Assembly. It is likely to pass parliament soon,” one of the officials said.
A bill for partial revision of the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety is currently pending in the National Assembly.
The same day, the government enforced emergency measures to reduce fine dust, which has affected most of the nation for the fifth consecutive day.
The government also held a policy coordination meeting with the ruling Democratic Party to discuss concerted efforts to cope with fine dust pollution.
“Experts say the fine dust pollution in recent days was worsened by wind blowing from China and stagnant local air. Whatever the reason, we feel deeply sorry to the people for their inconvenience and agony,”
Cho Jeong-sik, a chief policymaker of the Democratic Party, said after the coordination meeting with the government.
“Measures have already been taken to regulate the number of vehicles on the roads and particles originating from construction sites. Consultations with China will also be further strengthened on the matter,” he said.
The emergency dust reduction measures were taken under the Special Act on Particulate Matter Reduction and Management, which took effect on Feb. 15 this year.
Under the special law, local governments are obliged to take various emergency steps if the daily average level of ultrafine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or PM 2.5, exceeds 50 micrograms per cubic meter and the figure is forecast to top that level again the following day.
If the emergency measures are enforced, heads of local governments have to strictly regulate the operation hours and utilization rates of coal power plants and other large-scale dust emission facilities.
In a related move, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education banned outdoor classes and activities at all elementary and secondary schools in the capital all day.
The level of PM 2.5, known as a class one carcinogen, reached 130 micrograms per cubic meter as of 3 p.m. in Seoul.
The National Institute of Environmental Research warned the daily average density of PM 2.5 is expected to surge to an all-time high in Seoul in the day.
Seoul recorded 129 micrograms of ultrafine particles as the daily average on Jan. 14 this year, the record-high figure since relevant record keeping began in 2015. On Monday, the capital’s daily average figure was 117 micrograms, the second highest on record.
The level of PM 2.5 was also far in excess of 100 micrograms per cubic meter elsewhere in South Korea as of 3 p.m., reaching 161 micrograms in Sejong, 142 in Gyeonggi Province and 125 in Gangwon Province.
South Korea’s authorities have classified levels of PM 2.5 above 35 micrograms per cubic meter as “bad” and above 75 micrograms as “very bad,” while the World Health Organization recommends keeping levels below 25 micrograms.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Cho told reporters that it may be necessary to impose new restraints on people’s economic activities and vehicles on roads as the fine dust problem seems to be worsening
“High density of ultrafine particles may pose a grave threat to people’s lives and safety because they are a class one carcinogen,”
Cho said, while indicating a mandatory “alternate no-driving day” policy could be considered as a last resort.
Looking back on his meeting with China’s environment minister in Beijing late last month, Cho said the Beijing government was also under heavy pressure to address its fine dust problem.
“At the talks, South Korea and China agreed to take actions to reduce fine dust based on scientific research,” he said. (Yonhap)