Wed, Mar 01, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Letter: TAIC story follow-up

By Christina MacFarquhar

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 (張國龍) was quoted as saying that the best the government could do would be to adopt "innovative technologies" to stop the further spread of pollution. However, judging by the subsequent inaction, this was clearly wishful thinking. Due in part to a dispute over liability, there have been lengthy delays both in implementing even the most basic of safety measures and in providing local residents affected by the pollution with much-needed compensation.

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.

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