By Shuchen Chang, Staff Reporter
TAIPEI, Taiwan, October 6, 2015 (TEIA) – More than a year after the tragic 2014 gas explosions in Kaohsiung municipality, Taiwan citizens are still fighting their way to safety. Academia and civil groups are urging the government to provide public access to environmental information and embrace a sustainable industrial development as the centerpiece of its development strategy.
On the night of July 31 and the early morning of Aug. 1 last year, gas pipelines running along major roads in downtown districts of Kaohsiung exploded due to underground leaking propene gas, leaving 32 dead and 321 injured.
The Emergency Response team on the scene including the Kaohsiung Environmental Protection Bureau officials and the Toxic Disaster Contingency Personnel was harshly criticized for their inability to locate the nature and the source of the gas leak.
Investigations after the explosions revealed that the pipelines had begun to show abnormality hours before the blast, but either the distribution company or the petrochemical plant failed to detect the leak. The pipe was shut down only after 3.77 metric tons of propene leaked out.
Kaohsiung is Taiwan's second-largest city and an industrial hub located in the southwest of the island, housing 2.8 million people and several petrochemical parks which rely completely on imported crude oil and release air pollution besides taking up a lot of land and water.
The slow response to the leaking crisis by the government and the private companies was substantially contributed to the lack of pipeline mapping and monitoring information. Also held accountable was the inefficient notifying system for crisis communications.
To remedy the situation, Premier Yi-huah Jiang asked the Ministry of Economic Affairs to obtain the underground petrochemical pipeline network information across the country and establish a monitoring and management system. The Premier also announced that rerouting may be used to avoid heavily populated areas.
However, environmental group Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan said that the government’s efforts over the year remained far from satisfactory. There is still a long way before Kaohsiung becomes a safe and sustainable city for its people.
Despite initial promises, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has not revealed the information of the 4,060km long petrochemical underground pipelines to the public for the belief that this may cause mass panic.
Hua-mei Chiu, assistant professor of sociology at National Sun Yat-sen University, criticized the government for jeopardizing the public's right to know, saying their approach was outdated and, most of all, irresponsible. She attributed the environmental disaster to the lack of relevant knowledge about petrochemical pipelines and risk prevention on the part of fire fighters and community residents.
Citizen of the Earth Taiwan suggested that the government incorporate the element of stakeholder participation as exhibited in the USA's EPCRA or the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, in order to foster community and citizen awareness in environmental decision-making.
Houjing Petrochemical Industrial Park behind a residential neighborhood (Photo by Yu-chin Lee / TEIA)
“The first step in disaster prevention is getting to know the situation and acquire information. Only when citizens are fully aware of the potential risks in their communities can they prevent and properly respond to an emergency,” said the group.
Apart from offering public access to environmental information, the Taiwanese government also needs to get on a sustainable energy path in land planning and industrial policy to prevent future disasters.
When the Ministry of Economic Affairs considered helping local governments relocate petrochemical pipelines to less populated areas, residents and civil groups were not cheering about the superﬁcial appeal.
Fu-hsien Hung was one of the Kaohsiung residents who strongly opposed the relocation policy. “Wherever we move within Kaohsiung, we will still be under the influence of petrochemical pollution”, he said.
“Kaohsiung has been sacrificing the environment for industrial development for decades, ” said Kuei-tien Chou, Chief Director of Risk Society and Policy Research Center at National Taiwan University. He argued that lying behind the benefits of industrial progress were the risks of causing irrecoverable environmental pollution and endangering public health. “We need to bring clean energy to our country that does not sacrifice the environment but still can boost the economy,” he said.
Chi-chung Chen, professor of Applied Economics at National Chung Hsing University, also spoke in an industrial policy forum that up to seventy percent of economic gains achieved by petrochemical products in Taiwan come from export sales rather than supplying domestic needs. While contributing to 3.97% of the national GDP, this high energy consumption and high pollution industry with heavy external cost on the society may not be as efficient as agriculture in generating GDP growth.
Taiwan Watch Institute secretary-general Ho-lin Hsieh said that it would be the best for all to curb dependence on petrochemical industry and begin to reduce its size. “After all, human lives and environmental benefits are more important than financial savings. These are the true assets that a country should hoard and treasure.”
※ Co-Published with Environment News Service