Over 1000 Academics Oppose the Kuokuang Petrochemical Project
1 August 2010
Fires at Yunlin’s Sixth Naphtha Cracker Plant (6NCP) have spilled over to such an extent that they have brought much needed light to safety, environmental and agricultural security issues related to our petrochemical industry.
At the same time as the fires, the Kuokuang Petrochemical Park project promises to create an uncertain future for all of Taiwan in terms of our water resources, health risks, food, and how we deal with climate change. This potentially massive blow to society has been oversimplified in the media reports as being just a conflict between “economic development” on the one hand and “environmental security” on the other. The coincidental occurrence of the 6NCP fire and the controversy over the Kuokuang project reveals the facts that Taiwan is unable or unwilling to face in our pursuit of an illusory economy based on high GDP growth. However, at the same time these incidents have stirred up concerns in academia among scholars from broad and varied backgrounds.
From the perspectives of white dolphin conservation, protection of wetlands ecology, health risks, loss of balance in our water resources, to our nation’s overall development strategy, scholars have taken a position. We have initiated an on-line petition and the momentum has swollen with the endorsement of the petition by eighteen Academicians from Taiwan’s most prestigious research institute, Academia Sinica, as well as the former head of the Academia Sinica, LEE Yuan-tse, who now heads the International Council for Science. Now, over a thousand local and international scientists have now spoken out by signing the petition. These scientists from the fields of ecology, public health, air quality, economics, national development planning and nearly all other areas of expertise have come out with a loud and clear message, a message backed by science and data: we oppose the Kuokuang Petrochemical project.
Let’s look at the 6NCP safety incidents and the preparations for construction of the Kuokuang plant from a scientific research perspective where you have what we could call the same clear distinction between the experiment group and the control group.
The experiment group, in this case the 6NCP, since its construction in 1993 has created a slew of “externalities” including radical environmental impacts, health risks, water resources reallocation, air pollution and so on. All our citizens absorb these impacts, and while the plant has fed high GDP growth, behind this high growth lie the catch reductions for coastal fisheries, unfair allocation of water resources and resulting inequity, loss of national land, ecological disruption, a host of human heath problems to name but a few. It is in the wake of these two recent industrial accidents at the 6NCP that all of these problems come are revealed.
Then we have the “control group” with whom to compare the results of the experiment group. The proposed site for the Kuokuang project is the Dacheng wetlands and intertidal zone just north of the Chuoshui River in Changhua, central Taiwan. While the 6NCP was being planned, surveyed, Yunlin coastal tidal land reclaimed, and the plant built and operated, during the past twenty years or so, how has the area of the “control group” fared?
It has maintained its ecology pretty much in tact so that this rich and fertile area of high biodiversity has been able to continuously provide its ecological services and retain its functions, providing human residents in the area with the means to maintain their livelihoods, including highly productive fisheries and the splendid centuries old Matsu [goddess of the sea] culture of Lukang, while it has also been an Eden for countless other plants and animals including being an important area for the highly endangered white dolphins for feeding, resting and travelling.
Thus the two points along the coast of western Taiwan where these two groups have conducted their experiments showed marked differences in results. Despite high leverage in terms of people, government resources and otherwise, government administrative agencies and the proponents of the Kuokuang project have been unable to overcome the skepticism and concerns of the academic community. They have even deceived the Premier, causing him to come up with silly statements like “oh, those dolphins can just make a turn and go around the project”. And the administrative agencies’ absurd behavior doesn’t end here as they have gone so far as to convene a press conference with the developer saying that some shareholders may pull out of the venture - a thinly veiled attempt to strong-arm this case through the environmental impact assessment process.
Expressing their anxiety over the state of Taiwan’s overall development and sustainability, the thousand academics have taken issue with, and clearly and comprehensively refuted the developer’s claims of mitigation or avoidance in the Kuokuang project’s environmental impact assessment. Whether it be social impacts, health impacts, plundering of water resources, conservation ecology, land stability and security, or most important of all, the impact the highly dangerous Kuokuang project would have in combination with the existing 6NCP on the future of Taiwan’s industry and sustainable development, particularly in this time when the severity of climate change grows by the day – these academics have mounted a challenge that should put this project to rest once and for all. This is an appeal from academics without regards to differences in institution or discipline; it is one voice with a very serious message: stop the Kuokuang project and start facing the urgent need to address a transition by Taiwan’s industrial structure.
This movement by so many members of academia comes just as the Taipei Administrative High Court has just issued a ruling instructing all work to cease on the phase four of the Central Science Park, and at a time when the Premier has ordered closure of some of the facilities at the 6NCP due to the recent explosions and fires. The ruling party that has in the past always put the economy and development as a first priority to the exclusion of all else, must itself now, in the words of the Premier, “make a turn” by addressing this groundswell of opposition from over one thousand petitioning academics. The government must rethink and reflect on the economic development model of the past fifty years that has sacrificed the environment and people’s health in exchange for not a few economic miracles, but which has also resulted in a shared karma for Taiwan’s twenty three million people, a situation that so many now are unable to bear.
What the academics are asking is very simple, and that is to take all the costs and benefits – including natural ecology, environmental and health costs and benefits – into account when assessing a proponent’s construction and operation of a development project. And please, no more simple dualisms such as “the environment versus the economy” or the simplistic labeling of us as “environmental ideologues” or claiming that those of us who support attention to the natural environment and health of our citizens as being “anti business” or “anti development”.
We are demanding an environment in which people can genuinely coexist among themselves and with the natural world and environment. The first and simple step toward this is to simply announce: the Kuokuang project stops now!
The author is a Research Fellow at the Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica as well as a member of the Eastern Taiwan Strait Sousa Technical Advisory Working Group
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