Ruling party to launch probe into controversial river project

SEOUL, July 12 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Saenuri Party will launch a task force to look into the state auditor's claims that the administration of former President Lee Myung-bak conducted a big-budget project to refurbish the country's four major rivers in a way that resulted in bid rigging and increased costs, party officials said Friday.

On Wednesday, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) released a report saying that the Lee government, which finished its five-year term early this year, carried out the 22.2 trillion won (US$19.5 billion) river project with a controversial canal project in mind.

The report said that the land ministry, at the request of the then presidential office, drew up a master plan for the river restoration project in 2009 in a way that allowed major industry players with an interest in the canal project to take part in the river project.

Lee had vowed in 2008 to suspend what he dubbed a grand canal project linking Seoul with the southern port city of Busan under stiff public criticism over its economic viability and negative environmental impacts.

The Lee government had also claimed that the river project was aimed at enhancing the country's water management system as well as preventing flooding in country's four major rivers -- the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan.

However, according to the BAI, the government's plan allowed those companies linked to the canal project -- including Hyundai Construction and Engineering, GS Engineering and Construction, and Daewoo Engineering and Construction -- to easily collude with each other to win bids for the river project.

"The (main opposition) Democratic Party is demanding a parliamentary investigation into the case, but we should first determine the truth at the level of the relevant standing parliamentary committees," a senior ruling party official told Yonhap News Agency by phone, asking that he not be identified.

The task force is expected to comprise about 10 ruling party lawmakers serving on relevant parliamentary committees, such as those handling land and environment issues, according to the party officials.

The members are scheduled to hold their first meeting next Monday to discuss details of their probe, they said.

The opposition party stepped up calls for a thorough investigation into the case.

The river project has long been at the center of controversy over its irreversible environmental damage and allegations of shoddy construction and of collusion in the bidding process for construction contracts.

"The four-rivers projects, which has turned out to be a scam related to the grand canal project, is the responsibility of the Saenuri Party's former and current governments," said Rep. Kim Han-gil, the chairman of the opposition party, at a Supreme Council meeting.

"(The presidential office) talks about it as if it's someone else's problem, but President Park Geun-hye had the people trust the project by offering her support for it following a private meeting with then-President Lee Myung-bak."

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