The Cabinet has initiated a debate about the environmental impact assessment (EIA) system and the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has begun public hearings to discuss possible amendments to regulations in response.
However, at a meeting on Tuesday, Taiwan Water Conservation Alliance director Jennifer Nien (粘麗玉) quarreled with EPA Deputy Minister Chan Shun-kuei (詹順貴), a former environmental lawyer, who put an abrupt end to the meeting by storming out.
This situation will do nothing to help the public understand how the assessment system works, nor will it allow for a thorough discussion of environmental organizations’ demands. There is no doubt that conflict is a bad thing for all parties as it blocks further progress.
Taiwan is a small nation of about 23 million people. The need for environmental protection is undisputed. However, what is appropriate legislation to manage development is an important policy question. This is why Taiwanese first and foremost need rational debate.
Only if the government is confused should people resort to brinkmanship and emotional suasion to force the government to give in. Prioritizing rational debate would protect the interests of the majority of Taiwanese, who are working to promote public welfare. It would not benefit the minority who want development for the sake of development or protest for the sake of protest.
The clash between non-governmental environmental protection organizations and Chan shows why the whole nation must face up to the issue of consolidating democracy.
The protesters’ main accusation was that exempting certain urban construction projects from assessments was a step backward and that it was a matter of influence-peddling by private businesses.
The EPA’s explanation was that the amendment to EIA legislation included tighter restrictions for certain items, while previously exempt projects would now require assessments, and that some items would be exempted because restrictions are already included in the Urban Planning Act (都市計畫法) and other pieces of legislation, which would be enforced by the authorities charged with overseeing the concerned industries.
Who is right?
Examination of the amendments shows that two new items now require assessments — the extension of mining rights and new natural gas storage tanks.
In addition, there are four items for which EIA standards have been raised — defining agricultural areas, mining developments, natural gas and petroleum product storage tanks on urban land and fish farming pools.
Regulations for two items that used to require an EIA have been relaxed — renewable energy sources smaller than 2 megawatts for personal use no longer require an assessment and geothermal energy generation only requires an assessment if generation capacity exceeds 10 megawatts.
Five items were exempted from assessments: some types of development on urban land, deliberate use of wetlands, factories or industrial parks located on parcels of land smaller than one hectare and belonging to Taiwan Sugar Corp, reuse of waste products and reassignment of factory land to non-factory use.
In sum, some regulations would be tightened while others would be loosened and that cannot all be explained by accusations of “influence peddling.”
Focusing on the more sensitive issue of urban development, the EPA’s draft exempts the development of communities, renewal of old communities, exhibitions, fairs, exhibition venues, underground shopping streets, high rises, hotels, nursing institutions, social welfare institutions, integrated industrial and commercial areas and shopping centers from assessments.
The main reason is that urban planning reviews already include environmental protection measures and requirements with regards to landscaping, traffic impact, sunlight and wind shear, which would overlap with EIAs.
In other words, these items are already regulated by law. At the same time, high-rise developments, hotels, integrated industrial and commercial areas, large shopping centers located on hillsides or in water conservancy areas would in the future require EIAs. Again, there is no evidence of influence peddling.
For a long time, the main criticism of the EIA system has been that the government does not take the responsibility for decisions, instead passing the buck to experts and academics.
While academics could serve as neutral reviewers of assessments, the government must not shirk its responsibility to govern and this is an issue that the current government should address.
Another issue is the procedural inefficiency of the system. When investment projects were submitted for an assessment in the past, nothing would happen for years.
An assessment is a scientific issue: If a project can be approved, it should be approved; if it cannot, then it should not be. There is no reason to delay a decision and leave room for speculation. The government should focus on results and always be transparent in whatever it does.
The EPA has said that the result of the deliberations is to be announced within six months and the whole issue is to be concluded within one year.
Some observers said that this process should be cut shorter if possible, and they are right.
If Taiwan’s development is to be built on a foundation of environmental protection, that requires expertise, knowledge and understanding — expertise to come up with the right solution and knowledge and understanding to implement it. If everyone realized this, there would be no need for quarreling or slander.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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