Recently, the press have turned their attention to furnace slag, which has become a political issue connected to the corruption scandal surrounding former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世).
Furnace slag is industrial waste, potentially containing dioxins or other heavy metals that present a real environmental contamination risk. Nevertheless, given the lack of standards governing its disposal, and the allure of the considerable economic gains to be made in the process, industrialists know better than to stare a gift horse in the mouth.
The point is, furnace slag is a waste product that threatens to cause environmental pollution. It should be managed according to a specific process, and not buried or recycled. If it is to be recycled, this should be done according to clear norms and controls, to avoid contamination or ecological damage.
Unfortunately, there is currently little transparency in how this slag is processed, leaving the field open for profiteering, with politicians and industrialists colluding on how to “deal with” the waste to the betterment of their pockets.
Regarding the actual controls on waste slag management, environmental groups in Greater Tainan have worked together with the city government’s Environmental Protection Bureau to secure several prosecutions for the improper management of, or environmental pollution by, this material, setting legal precedents. However, the problem remains widespread, with these prosecutions being the exception rather than the rule. The general public does not seem to be overly concerned.
The question remains of why furnace slag can lead to a political scandal. The following three factors go some way to providing an explanation:
First, there are the vast profits involved. Furnace slag should not be regarded as an economic incentive promoting economic development, but as a tempting money-earner potentially resulting in environmental damage. It is right that the public monitors any improper economic gains made in the background, which brings us to the following two points.
Second, there are no clear controls. In recent years the problem of furnace slag being dumped or used as landfill has come to the attention of environmental groups. The problem is that very little exists in the way of clearly defined standards and norms for waste management. Consequently, furnace slag management is handled non-transparently. Neither the general public nor environmental groups have sufficient information on how this waste is handled.
Third, there is a lack of access to information. What is needed is for all manufacturers that produce furnace slag and toxic waste, including used solvents, and also companies responsible for industrial waste management, to provide clear and accurate information about how they process these materials. This should be accessible to all the relevant government departments, environmental and academic groups, and the general public, so that they can, on demand, monitor and understand the situation pertaining to industrial waste management.
As regards the current political flurry over industrial waste, it is of utmost importance that the authorities investigate. Local environmental protection bureaus should work in concert with waste management companies to address concerns over the environmental impact of furnace slag and to clarify details of the processes employed. Indeed, the government departments concerned with environmental protection should regard this affair as an opportunity to establish a public oversight, or at least openly transparent, mechanism to monitor industrial waste management.