Until several weeks ago, few had heard of the cross-strait service trade agreement. That was until a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator infamously attempted to eliminate the pact’s clause-by-clause review — previously agreed upon by the governing and opposition parties — and force it through to the next stage. His actions infuriated the public, and a group of students broke into the legislature and occupied its main chamber, throwing the government into a crisis.
There is nothing inherent about the near-universal distrust Taiwanese have for the government: It is the result of confusion accumulated over a long period. Why has the government been so selective with its rezoning policy and on who it grabs land from? Why do certain companies get all the breaks, while the government, with all the laws and regulations at its disposal, picks when they are enforced on a few “disobedient” companies?
Government officials’ fantastical and dubious comments only add to distrust and suspicion, as in “the dolphins won’t go near the industrial park, they will just learn to turn back,” or when the chairman of the Atomic Energy Council claimed, in the wake of the March 11, 2001, earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster in Japan, that nuclear power plants in Taiwan were perfectly safe, like “bodhisattvas meditating on their lotus thrones.”
Unable to face up to public scrutiny, the government has started to look for ways to hide and keep the public ignorant of what it is doing. If it does not tell anyone what it is up to, if it keeps the public in blissful ignorance, people will see no reason to worry and therefore will not protest.
Signing the pact with China followed this rationale. The wording in the agreement regarding deregulation of the environmental service sector — sewage treatment and waste product handling, the handling of waste gases, noise management, soil and groundwater pollution control, testing and analysis, technical consultation and the cleaning of buildings — seems straightforward and harmless. However, when it is considered in the context of government policy, the hidden implications become clear.
In an Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) report in September last year, 12 of 14 items originally classified as hazardous industrial waste — including scrap electrical cables, transformers, capacitors, electroplated plastics, computers, home electronics, electronic components and optoelectronic elements — are classed as general waste. Taiwan does not manufacture such products much and has not for some time, so the amendments clearly pave the way to legalizing the importation of these hazardous waste products.
The EPA did not deny this, saying that these types of waste are “rare strategic materials,” and to foster “domestic supply chain integration” it recommends “a reasonable deregulation of mixed metal scrap imports to support the development of the renewable resources recovery industry,” also that “signing the service trade agreement will... help Taiwanese industry to create new job opportunities.”
In the 1980s, Taiwan imported large volumes of scrap metal to recycle precious and heavy metals, causing serious air, soil and water pollution. The situation gradually improved following a 1993 ban, but the harm caused continues to this day. Cleaning up the Erjen River (二仁溪) estuary in Greater Tainan has cost NT$4.2 billion (US$139 million), and the operation continues with no end in sight.
Today, China is the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic products, so signing the service trade agreement — thereby deregulating waste material management — at the same time as reducing the number of materials classified as hazardous waste will surely open the nation to a deluge of imported scrap.
The EPA swears daily there are already all-encompassing environmental regulations in place that provide strict checks and management systems to protect the environment and signing the pact will not have any untoward environmental effects. However, three or four decades of the government failing to enforce the law has meant that the dumping of industrial waste and wastewater emissions have gone unchecked.
It was not until the end of last year that Advanced Semiconductor Engineering and many electroplating plants were discovered to have been illegally discharging untreated industrial wastewater. The year before, more than 5,000 companies were tested for suspected violations of the EPA’s industrial waste treatment reporting system, but in the end fewer than 100 were fined. The EPA must admit that the current testing system is unfit for the purpose of preventing malpractice.
A Control Yuan investigation into the treatment of industrial waste found that “there is a high incidence of illegal disposal of industrial waste, and there are now limited options to deal with the accumulation of electric arc furnace dust and slag,” while government statistics show that treatment facilities are inadequate or running at or close to 100 percent capacity.
While ostensibly interested in trying to “promote industry” and “create new job opportunities,” the EPA has no intention of protecting the environment. Current waste management facilities rely on fudged statistics, and yet the nation is set to import large amounts of hazardous waste. It seems that the government thinks the nation’s only future lies in trading in scrap.
Gloria Hsu is a professor in National Taiwan University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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