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What Can Taiwan Do With All That Waste? (Int'l Edition)

International -- Asian Business: Taiwan

What Can Taiwan Do with All That Waste? (Int'l edition)

Taiwan's lax disposal is creating a furor--at home and abroad

No town in Taiwan wanted it. So in late November, Formosa Plastics Corp. shipped some of its mercury-laden waste to Cambodia instead. The company was supposed to mix the poisonous stuff with concrete and form it into solid blocks, ready for safe storage. Instead, 3,000 tons of crumbly, sludge-filled blocks ended up in an open pit near the port of Sihanoukville, a threat to the water supply. Local residents rioted when a local worker died after cleaning the tanks of the ship that carried the waste. Formosa Plastics says its waste did not kill the worker. No matter: Four others died in road accidents as thousands fled the area.

Formosa Plastics argues the waste was appropriately handled--and it denies paying a $3 million bribe to Cambodian officials to accept the shipment. But now it is apologizing and will move the sludge out of Cambodia to a facility in the U.S. or Europe for processing. But Taiwan must still deal with the legacy of three decades of pollution. "This case is just the tip of the iceberg," says Wu Tong-jie, an official of the Green Formosa Front, a Taiwanese environmental group that collected samples from the Sihanoukville site for Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). "The whole island is severely polluted." And without a real effort to clean up Taiwan, more near-disasters such as the Cambodia episode are sure to follow.

Taiwan factories each year generate 18 million tons of industrial waste, but they can process or legally dispose of just 11 million tons. The rest, including 1.4 million tons of toxic material, is unaccounted for, according to Taiwan's EPA. Environmentalists say a lot of Taiwan's industrial waste gets dumped illegally, often in open landfills reserved for household trash. The EPA has identified 139 illegal dumps in Taiwan. All kinds of nasty stuff is thrown into canyons, left by roadsides, dropped straight into the ocean, or shipped to other countries, says environmentalist Jay Fang, secretary general of Taiwan's Green Consumers' Foundation.BELEAGUERED. Despite the growing problem, the EPA has just 90 field inspectors to enforce environmental laws regulating 100,000 factories that range in size from backyard electroplating workshops to giants such as Formosa Plastics. The EPA is finally building three large waste-storage sites, the first such facilities on the island. The authority also wants companies to register their waste on the Internet so its disposal can be tracked electronically, says Harvey Houng, an adviser to the EPA administrator. Taiwan hopes to have the ability to store its waste safely at home within five years, says Houng. In the meantime, he says, "we are trying to identify who is dumping illegally, but it's very difficult."

The environmental problems also are damaging foreign relations--a sore point for Taipei, which craves respectability in the international community. In the Cambodia incident, Formosa Plastics gave Corporate Taiwan a bad name by initially dragging its feet and questioning the results of tests that indicated toxic levels of mercury. Politics got in the way when the Cambodia government appealed to Beijing for a solution, in an attempt to please China's leaders and embarrass Taiwan. That move infuriated Taipei and slowed its response to the emergency.LOWER MARGINS. Yet a strong disincentive for Taiwan to clean up is cost. The EPA estimates that mopping up the illegal waste sites it knows about would cost $10 billion. The actual expense would presumably be much higher. And low-margin textile and chemical manufacturers would certainly be less competitive if they were forced to maintain cleaner factories.

But Taiwan has to recognize that land contamination, soil erosion, and damage to the water supply directly affect Taiwan's economic potential. Semiconductor makers, for example, already are paying premiums for the clean water they require to fabricate wafers. And some developers are finding that they cannot build on the sites of old factories because they are so polluted. The island has become an economic success. It can become an environmental success, as well--if business and government decide they want a clean Taiwan.By Jonathan Moore in Taipei

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