After seven fires at its petrochemical complex in a year, Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) set a new precedent this month by deciding to learn from its biggest competitor, CPC Corp, Taiwan. Suddenly, CPC seems to have gone through a transformation from troublemaker to model of industrial safety. Is that really so?
Taiwan should not forget that the CPC petrochemical complex in Greater Kaohsiung also suffered three fires in just six months three years ago, each more serious than the last. On July 29, 2007, a fire broke out at its sixth distillation unit, which later suffered an explosion on Nov. 26 that year. On Jan. 6, 2008, the second vacuum gas oil unit experienced an even bigger explosion. Even people 20km away could hear it, but CPC’s reaction was as slow as a snail’s.
Forty minutes after the explosion, residents of the Houjin (後勁) area of Nanzih (楠梓) District gathered outside the complex’s new north gate, but no CPC representatives appeared to offer an explanation. Frustrated, they charged into the plant, only to find the area about 100m away from the site of the explosion shrouded in chemical gas, forcing them to withdraw. This was the beginning of a 221-day siege of the plant that was not called off until then-deputy minister of economic affairs John Deng (鄧振中) visited to repeat a promise that the plant would be relocated by 2015.
FPG’s poor performance does not mean that CPC’s performance is better — if they are being treated as a model of industrial safety just because they have not had an explosion in three years, surely we are holding them to standards that are too low.
If we want to improve industrial safety, we must not only invite assistance from local and foreign experts and organizations, we must ensure that all information is completely transparent, that we set up mechanisms for public participation and that the reliability of these measures are verified by external monitoring mechanisms.
FPG’s establishment of the Sixth Naphtha Cracker Plant in Yunlin County was the culmination of a series of wrong decisions. The uneven subsidence of the land reclaimed for the plant and the accelerated corrosion of pipes due to high salinity are fundamental problems that are very difficult to resolve — the only way to do so once and for all is to close the most dangerous plants one at a time.
Today, 70 percent of FPG’s products are exported. If the company maintained 30 percent of its production capacity, domestic needs would continue to be met and we would be able to truly reduce industrial safety problems and public health risk.
FPG has always treated our skies, land and sea as cheap garbage dumps, and it has become accustomed to emitting pollution as it sees fit. When the Environmental Protection Administration conducted an overall safety check on the Sixth Naphtha Cracker Plant in October last year, it discovered that an emergency flare tower whose operation should not exceed 100 hours per year was in fact used throughout the year. On the spot where the pollution from this tower falls to the ground, there is an elementary school.
Such an unfair business model that sacrifices the health and safety of the public for high profits should no longer be allowed by the government. In addition to strengthening monitoring and management, the government should also demand that FPG cut its annual emissions volume on a yearly basis. If it makes a 5 percent reduction an annual goal, it will be able to halve the total emissions volume in 10 years. This could significantly reduce the health risks to the public.