President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was shouted down in Changhua County yesterday while attending a protest he had been invited to over the planned construction of a controversial petrochemical complex.
Before Ma was ready to address the crowd over the Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co (國光石化科技) project, some protesters asked him to sign a letter promising he would express opposition to the project, but the president refused to do so.
Ma’s refusal angered the protesters, who barred him from delivering the speech with repeated chants demanding that he “step down” and asked that he remain seated.
Photo: Juan I-yu, Taipei Times
He told a provisional press conference after the event that he was there to listen to the voices of local residents and that he regretted that he could not go on stage to tell the participants what he thought.
Public opinion would serve as an important reference for his administration’s future decision on whether to build the plant, he said.
It would be an “important” and “key” part of his administration’s decision on the matter, Ma said, adding that he would also ask the Environmental Protection Administration to strengthen environmental controls and regulate particulate matter produced by petrochemical plants.
Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology is an affiliate of state-run oil refiner CPC Corp, Taiwan (CPC, 台灣中油), which is seeking to expand oil-refining capacity and production of chemicals such as ethylene.
The government argues the capacity is needed to keep the nation competitive in the petrochemical sector in the face of stiff competition from Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Environmentalists believe the complex will create losses that outweigh its economic benefits, including damaging the local agricultural sector and the Dacheng Wetlands (大城濕地), where the complex would be located, while putting the health of local residents at risk.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential hopefuls Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) also made rare appearances together, arriving within 10 minutes of each other, at the gathering against the plant, a facility both vowed to stop if elected.
The two frontrunners for the DPP nominations have been dodging each other on the campaign trial and the anti-petrochemical plant protest is one of the few events for which both have appeared, signaling strong opposition to the facility.
In addition to Ma, Tsai and Su had been invited by environmental and medical groups that say the NT$600 billion (US$20.5 billion) project could lead to local health concerns and damage sensitive coastal wetlands.
“With both Ma and Su here today, it shows just how important this petrochemical issue has become. Everybody cares about Taiwan’s future,” Tsai said.
However, Tsai and Su separately said they were disappointed to learn that Ma had failed to sign a statement to promise to phase out expansion of the industry and press for stricter air quality regulations. Both the DPP candidates signed the pledge.
In her address, Tsai said the planned project was “not a solution for us now” and would not be “a solution for us in the future.”
She added that now was a time for the country to reconsider its industrial policies.
Su acknowledged the DPP had pushed the construction of the complex when it was in power between 2000 and 2008.
At the time, however, the DPP government chose to build the complex in neighboring Yunlin County to the south, rather than in the Changhua County wetlands, he said.
It was not known if Ma’s decision to attend the rally meant the government had changed its mind on the project.
Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Huang Jung-chiou (黃重球) said the environmental impact of the project was being reviewed by a panel of experts, but the government did not plan to move it overseas, the United Daily News reported yesterday.
CPC expects the environmental review to be finished by May.Though some shareholders have said they could no longer wait and wanted to move it overseas, CPC, which has a 43 percent stake in the project, wants to make the investment domestically.
Some officials said in private that the project could “die,” judging from the current political atmosphere in Taiwan.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VINCENT Y. CHAO AND CNA, WITH STAFF WRITER
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