SEOUL, South Korea, July 24 -- Faced with growing anti-American sentiment here, the U.S. military apologized Monday for dumping toxic chemical waste into a South Korean river.
"I officially express to you my deepest apology for the incident and resulting stress and anxiety due to the disposal of formaldehyde," said Lt. Gen. Daniel Petrosky in a statement.
Petrosky, the second highest-ranking U.S. officer in South Korea, who is commander of the 8th U.S. Army, also promised to conduct a "fair and thorough" investigation into the discharge in February of untreated toxic waste into the Han River, a main source of drinking water for Seoul's 12 million citizens.
The U.S. Forces Korea said its Seoul headquarter discharged the chemicals through the sewage system. But U.S. officers said that the chemical would not damage the environment as it received waste treatment in sewage systems and got diluted with water. But Seoul's civic environment groups called the chemical toxic and said it could cause lung cancer and birth defects and kill fish and other aquatic creatures in the water.
Petrosky promised to take "appropriate corrective action" to ensure there is no recurrence of similar incidents.
"I take this investigation very seriously," he said. "You have my word it will be fair and thorough. It is a source of great pain to know that one of our actions caused your citizens anxiety. We take our obligations seriously."
It was the first apology by the U.S. military since 37,000 U.S. troops were deployed here under a defense treaty in the wake of the 1950-53 Korean War. The dumping case has triggered a new round of anti-U.S. protests in South Korea. Hundreds of South Korean civic activists and students staged a rally Sunday in front of an Army base in central Seoul to protest the incident, chanting, "Poisonous Americans poisoned the Han River. Clinton should apologize!"
They maintained that General Thomas Schwartz, commander in chief of U.S. Forces Korea, ordered the "illegal" dumping of 59.3 gallons (228 liters) of formaldehyde down the drain that goes to the Han River, which runs through the country's capital.
Forty-eight South Korean lawmakers adopted a statement Monday demanding that the U.S. officers be punished. They also wanted Schwartz's resignation. The lawmakers also called for a sweeping revision of the controversial Status of Forces Agreement that sets out the regulatory framework for U.S. troops in Korea.
South Korea and the United States are scheduled to hold talks in Seoul next week to discuss revisions to the agreement, which South Koreans believe unfairly granted U.S. soldiers legal privileges.