Mon, Jan 13, 2020 - Page 6 News List

Practice of tailor-made EIA reports must stop

By Hsu Meng-ping 徐孟平

The last sections of the project to improve the Suhua Highway opened on Monday last week, once again bringing its environmental impact assessment (EIA) into the spotlight. The project’s environmental impact was seriously underestimated before it was approved in 2010. That report’s findings diverged from a 2012 assessment by the Council of Agriculture’s Endemic Species Research Institute.

It has long been an open secret that there are significant discrepancies between EIAs and reality. For example, to decide whether the sites for the Suhua Highway upgrades were suitable, the Directorate-General of Highways commissioned an assessment that was submitted to the EIA committee for review.

However, there is a problem with this seemingly smooth process — developers do not want a report they paid for to conclude that there would be major environmental issues that could stop development. To keep their clients happy, consultancies’ reports often do not reflect the actual situation.

It is also said that some developers commission specific firms capable of producing “ideal reports.” This is known as a “symbiotic relationship between developers and consultancies,” and has resulted in many distorted or forged EIAs.

Two examples are the Tambei Expressway (Tamsui-Taipei Expressway) project and Chen Nan Iron Wire Co in Kaohsiung, which were canceled in 2014 and 2018 respectively after the EIAs were revoked.

To solve the problem of distorted EIAs and cut connections between developers and consultancies, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and civil groups in 2017 proposed amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (環境影響評估法).

In the civil groups’ version, the developer would only have to propose a development plan and pay a fee, and then the authority in charge of the EIA commission uses that fee to pay a consultancy for a study. This is intended to ensure that the consultancies produce reports based on fact rather than their own interests.

The EPA version would require that the industrial authority — not to be mixed up with the authority in charge of the EIA commission — examine the draft report submitted by a developer and issue an opinion.

The proposed amendments take different approaches, but they are intended to ensure that the impact study is carried out properly.

Unfortunately, the ruling party replaced many of its Cabinet members following its 2018 defeat in the local elections. As EPA Minister Chang Tzi-chin (張子敬) took office, the plan to amend the law, which had not been updated for more than 15 years, came to a halt.

The two approaches currently proposed by the EPA — rating consultancies through a technical evaluation and prioritizing the use of long-term government survey data — would not improve the situation. They would only be cosmetic and would do nothing to address the real issue. As long as the connection between developers and consultancies exists, it would be difficult to avoid the possible distortion of EIA reports.

What is actually needed is not difficult to achieve: Make sure that actual data are transparent and public.

With the elections over, legislators and the new administration should take the proposed amendments to the EIA act seriously. The EPA should not only take responsibility for amending the act, it should also insist on preserving environmental resources, and pursuing sustainable development, as stated in the Basic Environment Act (環境基本法), to make sure that EIA committees review real data.

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