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Head of panel on river project probe quits amid controversy

2013/09/12 10:27

SEOUL, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- The chief of a newly launched investigative committee on a highly controversial river refurbishment project offered Thursday to resign over a dispute over his alleged impartiality.

Chang Sung-pil, a former civil engineering professor at Seoul National University, was appointed last week to lead the commission tasked with resolving suspicions surrounding the 22.2 trillion won (US$20 billion) river refurbishment project.

The previous Lee Myung-bak government's signature project had been aimed at preventing flooding and promoting tourism along the country's four major rivers -- the Han, Nakdong, Kum and Yeongsan. But civic activists and opposition parties have long condemned it for allegedly causing irreversible environmental damage.

Chang was chosen to take the chief position among 15 civilian experts appointed to the commission deemed neutral on the topic.

He, however, turned out to have had served as a non-executive director for Yooshin Engineering Corp., in charge of planning facilities for the river project, from 2007-9, sparking allegations that he was biased toward the project.

The company won the design contract in 2009 and has been under the prosecution probe on bid-rigging suspicions.

"I expressed my intention to quit this morning," Chang said. "I think I cannot serve the post anymore."

   Stressing his neutral position on the project, however, he said his role for the company had nothing to do with the four-river project.

Over Chang's offer to resign, the Prime Minister's Secretariat, in charge of managing the commission, refused to make any official comments, saying that "discussions are under way on how to run the commission down the road."

The commission was supposed to include members who are both supportive and critical of the project, but the opposition parties and environmentalists failed to narrow differences with the government on how to select the members. They refused to take part in the committee, causing the government to appoint who it said were "only neutral experts."

   In May, the main opposition Democratic Party launched a similar fact-finding committee to look into alleged irregularities surrounding the project.

The prosecution, for its part, has started an investigation into suspicions that several local builders colluded to win a bid for the project.