BUREAUCRATIC PARADOX: The data collected by legally required monitoring systems are not accepted as proof, making it impossible to document violations
By Chen Wei-han / Staff reporter
“Purple explosion” has become the latest buzzword this year in pollution-stricken central and southern Taiwan.
It refers to the most severe levels of fine particulate matter measuring 25 micrometers in diameter or smaller （PM2.5）, according to the Environmental Protection Administration’s （EPA） four-color categorization. Small enough to penetrate the deepest parts of lungs, PM2.5 increases the risk of respiratory disease and cardiovascular mortality.
The pollutant has sparked waves of heated protests targeting industrial polluters, particularly the Formosa Plastics Group’s naphtha cracker in Yunlin County’s Mailiao Township （麥寮）, as it is assumed that coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and steel makers are major PM2.5 contributors.
The cracker complex has its own coal-fired power plants, which also produce 11 percent of the nation’s electricity.
The naphtha cracker has been repeatedly accused of causing disease. Seventy-four Yunlin residents suffering from cancer in August filed a group lawsuit against the Formosa Group for the cracker’s perceived carcinogenic impact. Their claim is based on a health risk assessment conducted by National Taiwan University professor Chan Chang-chuan （詹長權）, which suggests that the cancer occurrence rates among residents living within 10km of the complex are four times higher than average.
On an annual basis, Yunlin has the highest average PM2.5 concentration in the nation from January to September, at 28.39 micrograms per cubic meter, appreciably higher than the EPA’s and the WHO’s annual limits at 15 micrograms and 10 micrograms per cubic meter respectively.
The EPA also recorded the nation’s highest annual PM2.5 concentrations in the county in the past two years, using manually operated devices.
According to the EPA, the naphtha cracker was estimated to emit 712 tonnes of PM2.5 in 2010, accounting for 21.5 percent of the county’s total PM2.5 emission, and 0.96 percent of gross national emissions, making the complex a major regional polluter despite its relatively low national contribution.
“The naphtha cracker is responsible for up to one-third of Yunlin’s air pollution during the stagnant weather conditions in winter and it could have a much more considerable effect on areas on the leeward side of the county, such as Chiayi and Tainan,” Yunlin County Environmental Protection Bureau Acting Director Chang Chiao-wei （張喬維） said.
Following Chan’s epidemiology studies, the Yunlin County Government enacted tougher measures to regulate the cracker, lowering the emission limits for sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds to one-tenth of the national standards and slashed the amount of coal the cracker’s power plants can burn by 20 percent, Chang said.
The moves were part of a larger effort by the county government to combat air pollution, which culminated in a ban in June on burning of petroleum coke and all types of coal except for anthracite coal — considered the highest grade coal.
However, the EPA in September rejected the county government’s move, saying national energy management was beyond the county’s jurisdiction.
The heated and divisive exchange about pollution control between protesters and the authorities, and between central and local governments, is entrenched in differing beliefs about the sources of air pollution: critics and local governments blame the power industry and oil refiners, while the EPA places the main responsibility on the transport sector.
Critics have repeatedly said that the naphtha cracker and the Taichung Power Plant — the world’s largest coal-fired plant — are the nation’s largest PM2.5 polluters, and clamping down on industrial emissions and coal burning should be the primary means of pollution control.
Chan said emission limits on coal-fired plants must be lowered to similar levels for natural gas-fired plants, or their output, as well as that of oil refineries, must be reduced, because Taiwan will not be able to reduce its national PM2.5 levels to under the EPA’s limit by 2040 under the current pollutant emission model.
Only 60 percent of the nation’s natural gas-fired power generators were working last month during peak pollution season in winter.
Chang said if those plants could be run at full capacity, the output and emissions of the Taichung plant could be halved.
He said the central government needs to downsize low-cost, environmentally damaging power generation.
However, the EPA said coal burning is an issue involving national energy management and local governments cannot interfere.
It also said that while lowering the output of coal-powered plants has limited effect in preventing pollution, adding that last month’s 10 percent output reduction of the Taichung plant led to only a 1.1 percent reduction in PM2.5 emissions in the center of the nation.
The Formosa Group said the power plants in the cracker complex that run on petroleum coke and bituminous coal — the second highest grade of coal — could achieve similar emission levels to those of Taiwan Power Co’s gas-fired plants in terms of particulate matter emissions.
However, banning bituminous coal and replacing it with anthracite coal would barely cause a blip in PM2.5 levels, but it would increase the emission of nitrogen oxides — PM2.5 precursor pollutants that have adverse effect on humans’ respiratory systems — because of the design of the generators.
The EPA said pollution caused by motor vehicles accounts for about 35 percent of the nation’s total PM2.5 production.
The top three contributors of PM2.5 are heavy-duty diesel trucks, cooking fumes and the power-generation industry, accounting for 9.53 percent, 6.13 percent and 5.6 percent of the total PM2.5 emissions respectively, while an oil refinery accounts for just 1.55 percent, while scooters account for 2.8 percent.
For the nation’s first five-year clean air program, the EPA set the replacement of diesel and outdated vehicles as the primary goal of the NT$39 billion （US$1.18 billion at current exchange rates） program, with only a fraction of the budget targeting industrial emission management.
However, critics say that municipalities in central and southern Taiwan experience lighter traffic, but more severe air pollution than Taipei and New Taipei City, suggesting that local industrial polluters influence pollution levels.
The EPA has been criticized for a perceived unwillingness to crack down on industrial polluters and choosing to focus its pollution prevention plans on reducing the demands of non-industrial sector, which account for a smaller percentage of electricity usage and contributions to pollutions the manufacturing and power industries, said Changhua-based environmentalist Shih Yueh-ying （施月英）, who was one of the leaders of the recent anti air-pollution protests.
The agency also keeps approving new development projects in contaminated areas, Shih said.
“Residents in central and southern Taiwan are second-class citizens, because those areas are where coal-fired plants and oil refineries are largely concentrated and where ‘purple explosions’ are most frequent, while the less emission-intensive natural gas-powered plants are located in the north, Shih said.
“The Taipei-based central government should get rid of the not-in-my-backyard mindset and consider the nation as a whole,” Shih added.
Changhua Medical Alliance for Public Affairs director Tsai Chih-hung （蔡志宏） said ending the fossil fuel and electricity subsidies for industrial users would be a vital took in facilitating energy transition and restricting polluting industries.
Special management measures are needed because the naphtha cracker is too big for the Yunlin County Government to monitor even with the nation’s strictest measures and most advanced monitoring systems in place, Chang said.
The county’s environmental bureau has only 43 employees, while the naphtha cracker — one of the world’s largest refineries — has more than 10,000 employees, Chang said.
The county also lacks the legal weaponry needed to fight polluters, he said.
For example, the bureau fined the cracker for discharging dark smoke, which had been detected by the automatic monitoring system in the complex, but the EPA revoked the fine because the monitoring system — although legally required for large facilities — is not a law-enforcement tool, and only on-site tests conducted with manually operated devices can be used to provide the legal grounds for prosecution or penalties, Chang said.
“We do not have enough staff to monitor the cracker 24-7, and even if we did, the smoke would have dissipated by the time inspectors arrived at the scene,” Chang said.
Meanwhile, only 34 of more than 200 chimneys in the cracker complex are fitted with monitoring system devices, Chang said, adding that the system could yield data significantly different from the bureau’s equipment — with differences up to 20 percent— making the calculation and verification of the complex’s real emission volumes problematic.
Environmental regulations should be modified to meet current needs and conditions, Chang said.
A special law needs to be enacted and a special authority established to regulate franchise industries and specially designated industrial zones because it is unreasonable to expect a municipal government to be able to monitor and regulate a gigantic cracker complex, Chang said.
Given the absence of a comprehensive pollution control plan and preventive measures that take into account the health risk of pollutants that have not been recognized in environmental laws, environmentally based conflicts between residents, local government and central authorities are likely to continue, he said.