Sat, Apr 09, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Governing is not about popularity

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) wants to wait until closer to next year’s presidential election before he makes a decision on whether to build the controversial Kuokuang Petrochemical naphtha cracker in Changhua County. What is he waiting for?

Ma said earlier this week that he wanted to wait until the project’s environmental impact assessment is reviewed. While some might see this as admirable restraint, a more likely explanation is that Ma is procrastinating because no matter what decision he makes, a lot of voters are going to be unhappy.

For a man whose entire political career has showcased his Teflon-like ability to avoid criticism sticking, taking a firm stand on anything other than a surefire bet is anathema.

Ma already got a taste of the angry reactions that lie in store for him on this issue when he was heckled during a visit on Sunday and Monday to the 2,000 hectare wetland near Dacheng Township (大城) where Kuokuang plans to built the cracker.

The environmental impact the proposed complex would have on the wetlands is pretty clear, even though the company has scaled down the project from 2,773 hectares to 1,900 hectares in a bid to win Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) approval after being forced to move the project from its preferred site in Mailiao Township (麥寮), Yunlin County, because of objections raised by the agency almost four years ago.

At that time the EPA felt the cracker’s pollution levels would exceed the environmental carrying capacity of the Mailiao area. Today, environmentalists say the scaled-down project on a purpose-built man-made island would create the same problem for the Changhua wetlands, as well as impacting the oyster-fishing industry in the area and the migration corridor of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin.

If that was not enough, the Control Yuan on Wednesday issued a report saying the Changhua site was unsuitable because of land subsidence problems in the area. The report raised the question of why the government would allow such a water-intensive industry in an area where its land subsidence prevention efforts had only now begun to pay off.

The Control Yuan did not mince words: “Water-----intensive industries such as the Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co project, which needs 400,000 tonnes of water a day, should not be introduced to the region.” Given that report, a decision to go ahead with the plant will surely risk legal challenges.

The administration seems to be sending out some tentative indications that it is prepared to back away from supporting the Kuokuang project, at least domestically. While the Presidential Office on Thursday denied that the government now wanted to see the cracker built overseas, perhaps in Indonesia, it said agencies were making preparations for different scenarios. The same day Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said the government favored environmental protection over energy-intensive industrial projects when a conflict arises between the two.

Taiwan’s geography imposes massive constraints on new industrial development, because there are not a lot of places left where a large polluting factory complex can be built. While the petrochemical industry has contributed greatly to the nation’s economic development, that contribution has come with a very high environmental price tag. Can the nation afford to sustain more environmental damage?

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