Seoul CNN  — 

Uiseong, a picturesque South Korean farming county, was a backwater until homegrown heroes the Garlic Girls became breakout stars and curling silver medalists at last year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

In recent months the spotlight has again fallen on Uiseong for a far less glorious reason: a smoldering mountain of garbage which highlights the trash crisis in the densely populated nation.

Among the rice paddies and beside the Nakdong River in the country’s east, a horseshoe-shaped, 170,000-ton heap of trash is spontaneously combusting, spewing out plumes of smoke and the nose-scorching, chemical stench of burning plastic.

On a cold February morning, six workers wearing grimy overalls and gas masks clamber over the 50 feet-tall (15 meters) man-made hill, dousing the smoke with fire hoses. But as soon as one smoldering spot is extinguished, another flares up.

Photos take by a local resident show the Uiseong trash heap ablaze.

They have been doing this for three months – and no end is in sight.

Park Hyun-soon, an eggplant farmer who lives next to the heap, says the fires spew ash over her greenhouses, blocking light from the plants and ruining her produce.

“The eggplants are growing gnarled,” she says. “We almost never open our windows. When we leave the house, we don’t smell the nature but the burning (garbage).”

The local government now issues dust masks to residents.

“My eyes hurt, my head hurts,” Park says. “All the residents are suffering.”

Story of a trash mountain

The Uiseong garbage pile is the largest in South Korea, according to local officials, and has a storied history.

In 2008, Kim Seok-dong, a recycling business owner, was granted a license to keep 2,000 tons of waste on the site.

But in 2016, his permit was canceled after locals began complaining that the rural spot was overrun with trash. Kim tried to fight the ban, but in 2018 a court ordered him to remove the waste.

While that struggle was raging, waste-to-energy power plant business owner Lee Won-jeong in 2017 bought the site from Kim, but kept him on as manager. Lee is based in Busan, in the south of the country, and claims he was unaware of the problems at the site.

Lee says that after the sale, Kim deposited more than 80 times the amount of garbage permitted at the site, including household waste, construction materials, and discarded polymer.

The manager of the site had a permit to dump 2,000 tons of waste, the site holds more than 80 times that now.

As the trash mountain decomposed, gas built up under the surface. In December last year, fires began to appear.

Lee says that when he learned of Kim’s misconduct he fired him. Kim has since disappeared and CNN was unable to reach him for comment.

Kwon Hyun-soo, the Uiseong county environmental supervisor, says local authorities are using their own resources to tackle the trash but the flaming mountain is too big for them to resolve.

“The waste is mostly from outside of our region. It’s too much for us to take care of the issue at the local level,” says Kwon.

Trash crisis

There are 1.2 million tons of illegally abandoned waste across South Korea, according to the Ministry of Environment.

In theory, all waste produced in the country is handled in one of three ways: it is either recycled, processed into fuel, or incinerated. But a series of events in recent years have disrupted this system.

In 2017, a surge in smog levels prompted the government to tighten regulations on waste-to-energy plants and waste incineration facilities which were blamed for belching out polluting fumes, says Sung Nak-kuen of the Korea Waste Association.

Consequently, the number of incineration facilities fell from 611 in 2011 to 395 last year. And with the waste-to-energy plants feeling the squeeze, demand for solid recovered fuel – non-recyclable plastic and paper burned for heat and energy – has collapsed.

The excess waste was simply exported to China.

South Korea is among the world's worst offenders when it comes to production of plastic waste.

But in late 2017, China banned the import of 24 types of solid waste, including paper and plastic, extending it in April last year to include dozens more types of recyclable materials, including steel waste, used auto parts and old ships.

Exports of plastic waste from South Korea to China fell by over 90%, according to the Korea International Trade Association. Trash overflowed on the streets of Seoul as the waste management companies refused to collect it.