Which is more important, environmental protection or economic development?
This is a question every government — in Taiwan’s case, whether led by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or the Democratic Progressive Party — must face. As the economy recovers slowly and the year-end mayoral elections draw near, protest after protest has seen farmers gather in front of the Presidential Office, including one group led by Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen (蘇治芬). The question has become an issue that could affect the elections.
Courts have ordered the immediate suspension of all building activity at the Cising (七星) and Erlin (二林) expansion projects at the Central Taiwan Science Park (中科園區). The courts, which are handling two administrative appeals, have said development might pose environmental risks and stressed the importance of environmental impact studies.
In 2001, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) conditionally passed the Cising expansion project’s environmental review and decided there was no need for a second-stage environmental impact study. Environmental groups filed an administrative appeal because they felt continued development would have a negative impact on the health of local residents. According to the Taipei High Administrative Court, the first-stage environmental review is only a written study, and the real review begins with the second-stage impact study. It also said sewage from the Cising expansion project would be discharged at the park’s northern side, which would affect irrigation water for farmers and drinking water for residents. The court therefore ruled against the EPA, and on Jan. 22, the Supreme Administrative Court denied the EPA’s appeal.
In November last year, the EPA announced that its environmental impact study of the Central Taiwan Science Park’s Erlin expansion project had been conditionally approved. More than 100 residents of Siangsihliao (相思寮) in Erlin Township filed a complaint with the Cabinet’s Petitions and Appeals Committee asking that the impact assessment be declared invalid. After the committee delayed handling the issue, Siangsihliao residents asked the court to stop all development. On July 30, the Taipei High Administrative Court ruled that all development at the science park must be suspended.
In addition to these residential protests and court decisions, more than 1,000 academics have signed an appeal against a Kuokuang Petrochemical development project in the area, and former Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) said it would be an unfortunate decision for Taiwan if the project were allowed to go ahead.
The court decision suspending the development of a plant worth hundreds of billions of NT dollars in investment has the Cabinet jumping with anger.
The EPA, which is supposed to protect the environment, said the court “must take responsibility for the consequences,” which proves that the government places development ahead of the environment.
Experience tells us something about the conflict between environmental protection and development. Under environmental legislation, every major development plan requires an environmental impact study followed up by patient communication with local residents. To improve the economy, the government now wants to shorten the process and skip environmental assessments. This led to public discontent and the government’s lost lawsuit. The government caused this situation — therefore it is not the courts that must take responsibility for the consequences.
There are many alternative means of promoting economic development, but a destroyed environment can never be restored. Government policy must give priority to environmental concerns. The government must not forget its place and must continue to communicate with the public as required by law. If it doesn’t, constant environmental disputes will cause major problems for the KMT in the year-end mayoral elections.
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