Industrial giant Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) has been hit by a wave of public opprobrium after the seventh fire in just one year broke out at its sixth naphtha cracker plant in Mailiao Township (麥寮), Yunlin County. The company has been criticized over the state of the plant’s pipeline system in particular, as well as its poor safety management and cost-cutting corporate culture. Aside from these problems there is another issue that deserves attention: the longstanding idea that business investment will bring prosperity and development to outlying areas — a promise often made by politicians and entrepreneurs.
Even before the recent big fires that have provoked protests by people living near the plant, two major fires that broke out at FPG’s sixth naphtha cracker in July last year had already prompted thousands of local residents to organize marches, block roads and surround the complex.
More than 20 years ago, it was opposition by people living in Yilan County, where FPG’s sixth naphtha cracker was originally going to be built, that forced FPG to choose the “outlying” area of Mailiao as the site for the complex. At the time, people in Yunlin welcomed the proposed plant in the belief that industrial development would bring them a prosperous future with plenty of jobs. Many people saw the plant as a money-spinner and celebrated its arrival.
The reception given to the project at the originally planned location in the Lize (利澤) area of Yilan County’s Wujie Township (五結) was very different from what happened later in Mailiao. In December 1987, then-FPG chairman Wang Yung-ching (王永慶) took part in a televised debate with then-Yilan County commissioner Chen Ding-nan (陳定南).
Wang said that if Chen gave the go-ahead for the plant to be built in Yilan, it would be a highly ethical decision that would bring great benefits to the county. Chen, however, responded by saying that if he allowed the complex to be built in Yilan he would be blamed for generations to come for what he called a “criminal error.”
In view of the seven fires in one year at the plant in Yunlin, and the protests that have followed, one can well imagine how thankful Yilan residents must feel today about Chen’s decision not to let FPG build the plant in their county.
In the two decades since it was built, the sixth naptha cracker plant has not brought the promised prosperity to the area. Instead, it has brought the threat of cancer and other illnesses, as well as the menace of fires that can and have broken out at any time. However, over on the other side of the Jhuoshui River (濁水溪), in Changhua County’s Dacheng Township (大城), the government was until the beginning of this year still offering the same old lures of “jobs and prosperity” to try and persuade local residents to support the construction of an eighth naphtha cracker plant.
Quite a lot of people living in the area followed in the tracks of Mailiao residents before them, accepting the government’s promises and supporting the petrochemicals construction project. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of environmental groups and people from other areas, the Dacheng project was stopped.
From now on, in view of the string of fires at the FPG complex in Mailiao, the myth that industrial development will bring prosperity to any area should come under stricter scrutiny and criticism than it sometimes has in the past.