Tuesday, January 05, 1999

Scandal puts Taiwan in uncomfortable spotlight as toxic waste exporter

By ANNIE HUANG
Associated Press Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - A scandal blamed for five deaths in Cambodia has raised a troubling question in Taiwan: Where are the island's industrialists dumping their toxic waste?

Nobody has many answers. But the recent incident in which Taiwan's chemical giant, Formosa Plastics Corp., shipped 3,000 tons of mercury-laden waste to Cambodia led to charges that Taiwan uses poor nations as a convenient dumping ground for unsafe chemical byproducts.

Formosa Plastics admitted in embarrassment that it generated the waste a decade earlier and sent it abroad because residents living near the plants objected to its disposal near their neighborhoods. The waste was mixed with cement, then slipped past customs officers labeled as "cement blocks" with no mention of the mercury content.

The waste ended up a few days later in Cambodia, where the handling agent dumped it on the open ground near the country's only major seaport, Sihanoukville, to save the expense of creating a landfill.

Then a dock worker mysteriously died a day after cleaning the hold of the ship that brought the waste. Residents, some of whom had taken the wrapping bags home, panicked on rumors they may have been exposed to nuclear waste. Four were killed in car wrecks as people fled the area.

Cambodia was outraged. Environment Minister Mok Mareth accused Taiwan of using poor countries as dumps. Formosa Plastics agreed to ship the waste out of the country despite disputes over just how toxic it was. Formosa Plastics said it labeled the waste as cement because it did not believe it was hazardous.

Critics wondered whether the scandal was isolated or part of a pattern that had gone undetected for years.

"This is the first Taiwanese firm caught secretly dumping its waste abroad. But who knows? A can of worms may have just been opened," said Wu Tung-chieh, chairman of the environmental group Green Formosa Front.

While there is no proof of any other similar exports of dangerous waste, a government report shows about 1 million tons of toxic waste generated by Taiwanese companies in 1997 went unaccounted for. Much of the waste is apparently dumped in Taiwan, though in many cases with lax standards, if any, for protecting the environment.

Ting San-lung, head of the Environmental Protection Bureau in southern Kaohsiung city, says he can't tell how much of the waste has been exported, but admits loopholes in Taiwanese laws.

"While pursuing rapid economic development, we have never come up with effective measures to handle industrial waste," Ting said in an interview. "Our biggest problem is we can't find any places to store the industrial waste."

Plans to build incinerators or landfills have met with strong objections by residents partly because of a lack of confidence in the standards of public projects, which have been marred by corruption and shoddy work, Ting said.

Meantime, many of Taiwan's riverbeds and rural lands have been filled with industrial waste after people illegally dig out tons of gravel. The landscape in one valley in the southern county of Pingtung has been so badly disfigured by the pirate mining companies that environmentalists sarcastically call it Taiwan's "Grand Canyon."

Objections from citizens have left Taiwan's state-run power company with no place to dispose of low-level waste from its three nuclear power plants.

The company first had sought unsuccessfully to dump it in Russia, and then a deal to store the waste in North Korea was scrapped following protests from South Korea.

Most recently, residents in the tiny Taiwanese island of Wuchiu have rejected the nuclear waste, despite an offer of $93 million as compensation.

The timing of the scandal could hardly be worse for Taiwan. The island can ill afford to develop a reputation as a toxic waste exporter while it strives to raise its international profile against the diplomatic isolation imposed by Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province that should be reunited with the mainland by military force if necessary.

"We must have the concept of being a part of the global village and respect its environmental laws," Foreign Minister Jason Hu recently told reporters. "We cannot suffer more blows in our efforts to win international support."