Thu, Feb 08, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Yet another complete disaster

It has been 24 days since the Greek-registered cargo ship Amorgos ran aground in the sea off southern Taiwan. Only after extensive media reports came out on the consequent oil spill did the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA, 環保署) get around to setting up a crisis task force to handle the spill, in cooperation with other government agencies. The slow, passive response of the government authorities has prompted legislators from the local constituencies to call the incident "an environmental Pachang Creek" (八掌溪) tragedy.

More than 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil has leaked from the ship since it ran around in the seas off Pingtung County on Jan. 14, polluting coral reefs along the shore of Oluanpi. About 200 more tonnes of oil still remain inside. Meanwhile, the size of the area polluted by the spill has expanded to 20km. This incident -- the most serious marine pollution in three decades -- has become a major threat to the tourism, ecological and fisheries resources of the Kenting area. The problem could become even more serious if the oil spill spreads to the water intakes of the Third Nuclear Power Plant.

The environmental authorities have indeed handled the incident poorly. After the ship ran aground, the shipping company demanded the exclusive right to handle the spill on grounds of insurance settlements. The local environmental authorities agreed and only meted out fines to the company. Pingtung County's environmental bureau did not intervene until Jan. 25, after the crucial time for a quick clean-up had passed and the shipping company proved unable to cope with the spill. The EPA chief did not visit the scene of the spill and only set up a Cabinet-level task force yesterday. The slow action and poor vigilance of our environmental authorities is shocking.

The Legislative Yuan passed the Marine Pollution Prevention Law last November. Three months have passed since then, but the EPA still has not completed the contingency plan it is supposed to draw up for oil spills. This lack of regulations has led to the many government agencies -- the EPA, Pingtung County Government, Kenting National Park authorities, Hualian Harbor Bureau -- passing the buck to one another. The nickname "an environmental Pachang Creek" may be justified because government agencies at both the central and local levels are obviously guilty of negligence. After the clean-up, the government should launch an investigation and punish the officials responsible for the lapse.

Certainly, the first priority of the task force will be to clean up the spill. Based on this experience, however, the task force should also set up standard contingency measures and cooperative mechanisms for handling future incidents. The agencies concerned will also need to buy clean-up equipment and improve the training of clean-up personnel. Next, a group of experts should get together to study the impact of the incident on the marine ecology and to accelerate recovery. Finally, the government should coordinate compensation claims with the shipping company.

When an oil spill incident occurred in the seas off northern Taiwan in February 1977, within two days then premier Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) had ordered a clean-up. About a quarter of a century later, it took the Executive Yuan 24 days to take action. The responsiveness and crisis-handling capabilities of our government appear to have declined. The fact that the DPP government -- which has not only attached great importance to environmental issues but also been willing to pay high legal, political and economic prices over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant dispute -- has turned out to be so laissez-faire on a major environmental disaster can hardly be acceptable to anyone.

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