Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) is about to apply for a renewal of the expiring permits for their petroleum coke and bituminous coal-fired power plant at the Mailiao (麥寮) petrochemical complex in Yunlin County.
There have been media reports that the nation’s energy supply will be tight this summer. This is why the Ministry of Economic Affairs has coordinated the extension of permits in the hope of avoiding potential energy rationing.
However, Yunlin County is a Class III control region for PM2.5 pollution and academic studies show that residents in the coastal areas of Yunlin and Changhua counties face greater health risks than in other areas.
The risk of power rationing can therefore not be the only factor when deciding whether to approve the permit extensions.
Several disputes have surrounded the extension of Formosa Plastic’s permits in recent years.
When the company applied for a permit extension for the Mailiao cogeneration plant, the Yunlin County Government requested that FPG reduce the use of raw coal by 20 percent and shortened the validity of the permit to two years. Formosa Plastics then filed an administrative appeal that was rejected last month.
The verdict showed that the county government’s review was based on preventing air pollution, protecting public health and gradually reducing the use of raw coal, and that it neither constituted abuse of the government’s discretionary powers nor violated the principle of fairness.
In September last year, Formosa Chemicals and Fibre Corp applied for an extension of three cogeneration boiler process operation permits.
The Changhua County Government rejected the applications on grounds that the company had failed to follow through on its pledge to implement the stricter controls required by an earlier environmental assessment. The decision led to a dispute.
The Environmental Protection Administration’s (EPA) Petitions and Appeals Committee on March 10 rejected the county government’s administrative ruling, although it affirmed the legitimacy of the county government’s desire to protect air quality.
This series of events tells us that reviews of permit applications offers an excellent opportunity to push companies to improve their environmental management practices.
Several dozen permits for the Mailiao plant are about to expire, and the authorities should use this as an opportunity to take a stern look at the applications and set an example for how to link the issues of controls and permits.
Taiwan is not unique in using reviews of applications for permit renewal as a means to reduce the environmental impact of factories on their neighboring areas.
In Rodeo, California, Unocal’s Rodeo San Francisco Refinery released noxious gases in August 1994, but due to an inadequate environmental monitoring system and the resulting lack of information, local residents were unable to provide evidence of any harmful emissions.
With the assistance of experts, residents developed methods for citizen science to overcome shortcomings in air pollution monitoring, which helped them gather evidence and point to shortcomings in US government and industry monitoring standards.
Rodeo residents discovered that when the refinery needed to apply for permits — and only then — it was willing to deal with residents directly.
Therefore, the approval of an application for land use was used to demand that the company install the most advanced real-time air monitoring equipment and that monitoring data be made available in real time.
The review was also used to gain an understanding of the limitations of different kinds equipment and the need for maintenance and upgrades to monitoring systems, and to demand public participation in the monitoring program.
The process of approving the permit provided an excellent bargaining chip for residents. They demanded that the refinery renew and upgrade its monitoring systems and improve analysis of environmental data.
Reviews before permit renewals offer an opportunity to evaluate and tighten demands for environmental management.
The government should respond to regional environmental problems by using its discretionary powers and stop treating reviews as a formality — a matter of approval or rejection.
Instead, the permit system should be treated as an opportunity to hold plant operators accountable, and demand that they respond to local concerns and improve the local environment.
The Californian experience has showed that involving local residents in air pollution monitoring and jointly developing methods adapted to the local experience, combined with information transparency, will not only improve monitoring methods and responses to local environmental problems, it will also help rebuild public trust in the government’s environmental management.
Nothing should stop the central government and the Yunlin County Government from taking advantage of the permit extension process for the Mailiao complex to stress its commitment to environmental governance and ease the longstanding environmental problems in the coastal regions of Yunlin and Changhua counties.
Tu Wen-ling is a professor in the public administration department of National Chengchi University. Shih Chia-liang is a post-doctoral researcher in the same department.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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