It’s sad to say that the best sign that you are doing something right — and well — is that the administration wants to hobble you. That appears to be the lesson learned from Premier Sean Chen’s (陳冲) announcement on Tuesday that the government is to review the role of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) in environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of industrial development projects.
Apparently the EPA’s bureaucrats and its EIA committees are proving just too competent in protecting the environment, to the detriment of the nation’s economic development and industry.
It all comes down to how one wants to interpret the law.
Chen says the current system, under which the EPA is mandated to reject an investment project because of environmental concerns, “is not in line” with the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (環境影響評估法), which aims at “preventing” and “mitigating” the adverse impact of development activity on the environment. He told lawmakers that the EPA seemed to be viewing its mandate as “eradicating” development projects and the Cabinet would review the environmental impact assessment system next month.
We can already see where this is headed, since EPA Minister Stephen Shen (沈世宏) appears all too willing to decapitate his own agency. He has suggested that the EPA be stripped of its veto power over investment projects and that EIAs of projects should be conducted by whichever ministry regulates the respective industry.
It does not take much imagination to see how that would end up.
The whole point of the EPA conducting such reviews is to protect the environment, not industry. Asking the Ministry of Economic Affairs or whatever agency is charged with promoting an industry to review EIAs is just asking for trouble — and more pollution problems. It’s like asking foxes to guard the hen house.
The spur for Chen’s planned review is apparently the EPA’s intractability regarding the proposed expansion of a Formosa Petrochemical Corp plant in Yunlin County. A recent EPA ruling rejected an appeal by Formosa against the agency’s previous decision that volatile organic compound emissions generated from non-manufacturing activities (such as painting and cleaning) at the naphtha cracker in Mailiao Township (麥寮) are sources of pollutants subject to emission limits.
Even before that ruling, Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) had expressed concern about the consequences of the EPA’s policy with regards to Formosa and how it might affect investors’ willingness to invest in Taiwan.
Perhaps it is only a coincidence that such talk comes as the government ramps up its appeals for Taiwanese businesspeople with investments in China to return home and start building manufacturing bases here again. Many of those businesspeople were lured to China not just by cheaper labor, but by China’s laxer environmental standards and laws.
Not for the first time, the Cabinet’s strategies to drive the nation’s economic growth appear to run counter to the welfare of the very public it is supposed to represent. What is scarier has been the lack of response by lawmakers, environmental protection groups and others to Chen, Shen and Shih’s mutterings about stripping the EPA of its regulatory role. Maybe they are waiting to see what the Cabinet decides to do next month, or maybe they are simply marshaling their forces for a grand battle, but they need to become proactive and start protesting against the idea of such changes now.
Taiwan’s environmental movement grew up alongside its pro-democracy efforts. The public should use its voice to tell the government that it is not willing to go back to the days of rampant air, water and ground pollution.