In July last year, the Taipei Times reported on the toxic pollution that occurred between 1942 and 1982 at the old Taiwan Alkali Industrial Corp (TAIC) site in Tainan County ("EPA head visits polluted industrial site in Tainan," July 13, page 2). Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Minister Chang Kuo-lung (
Anshun plant, situated northwest of Tainan City, has changed hands, names and products several times since its construction by the Japanese in 1942. Originally producing hydrochloric acid, caustic soda, liquid chlorine and poison gas for the Japanese navy, by the early 1970s it had become Asia's biggest producer of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), under the title of state-owned TAIC. After closing in 1982, it merged with China Petrochemical Development Corp, which then privatized in 1994, which inherited TAIC and all its property.
Once renowned simply for its vast production volume, news is now spreading that the company site holds some more sinister records. The bottom mud in neighboring Luermen River has the highest dioxin levels for a river in Taiwan, and one local resident has the highest recorded blood dioxin concentration in the world. In January, the dioxin concentration in one ditch on the site was found to be 64 million TEQ ng/m3 -- 64,000 times the accepted standard.
Dioxin, a byproduct of DDT and a member of the dangerous group of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, can result in illnesses affecting the skin, liver and immune, nervous and reproductive systems. It has also been categorized as carcinogenic.
In addition to dioxin, soil on the factory site has also been found to contain both DDT and methyl-mercury (CH3Hg+). DDT is known to affect the nervous system, cause reproductive problems and is also believed to be carcinogenic, while methyl-mercury causes a range of illnesses including impaired neurological development and severe disabilities in the children of affected women. The horror of methyl-mercury poisoning first came to light in 1956, with the discovery in Japan of what has become known as Minamata disease.
For decades, residents of the townships near the Anshun factory have farmed and caught fish and shellfish in the reservoir and ponds surrounding the factory, unaware that what they were eating and selling was poisoned. However, not everyone was oblivious to the danger. Confidential documents show that the Ministry of Economic Affairs warned TAIC in 1982 that mercury concentrations in fish caught in the reservoir (used by TAIC as a toxic waste dump) exceeded safe levels for human consumption. Yet this was not brought to the public's attention, nor did it result in any attempt to prevent the further spread of pollution, or the consumption of fish harvested from the contaminated areas.
It is also believed that the Tainan City Government's Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB), and the EPA neglected their respective supervisory and investigative duties. It was, in fact, purely by chance that the EPB discovered the seriousness of the dioxin pollution in 2001. The bureau had commissioned National Cheng Kung University to study the blood dioxin concentrations of people living near each of the nation's 12 waste incinerators, through which it emerged that residents of Hsiengong and Luermen townships had unusually high dioxin levels in their blood. It was then established that this was directly related to their proximity to the China Petrochemical plant.
With so many potentially liable and because of the length of time that has passed since the pollution occurred, the case is taking a long time to reach a final conclusion. In July last year, the Executive Yuan allocated NT$1.3 billion (US$41 million) as compensation for affected residents, but it has taken six months for residents of Hsiengong and Luermen to see the first small portion of this.
One major complication relates to ownership of the plant. The Kaohsiung City Administrative Court has held China Petrochemical responsible and ordered the company to pay the compensation fees. However, China Petrochemical is presently appealing on the grounds that the pollution occurred under state-owned TAIC, and therefore the government should bear responsibility.
The amount of compensation is also a bone of contention. The monthly sum of NT$1,814 per person is intended to pay for continuing medical treatment of various illnesses, including cancer, as well as social welfare and living expenses. Many regard it as disproportionate to the extent of damage caused to the health and livelihoods of local residents, taking little account of past medical costs and other losses, and failing to discriminate between the varying needs and severity of illness among the population.
As for control of the pollution and the ongoing clean-up of the factory grounds, some of the most polluted soil has been removed to a concrete store on the site, to be treated by China Petrochemical. But no urgent action is being taken to deal with the remaining pollution, which may spread beyond the factory boundaries during heavy rainfall. Also, birds and other animals continue to nest and feed there, and in one place, a large pipe runs under the walkway separating one off-limits pond from Luermen River, allowing water, silt and fish to move freely between the two.
Still only crude physical barriers hinder human entry to the most seriously polluted areas, and there is little enforcement of a 2005 ban on fishing. The only indications of danger are a few sparsely distributed signs from Tainan City Government suggesting a "likelihood" or "unconfirmed level" of pollution.
According to local researchers, these measures are insufficient to discourage some residents, who do not understand how seriously to take such warnings, particularly when large, healthy-looking fish and crabs can be seen in the water. Despite the high instance of illness in the local population, those who have eaten fish from these waters all their lives find it hard to comprehend the invisible threat.
Environmental and legal groups in Taiwan continue to seek proper recognition and treatment of the TAIC case, and work to ensure that lessons are learned that may help prevent future disasters of this kind.
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