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Oil refinery snub marks arrival of Taiwan's environmental movement

Taiwan has sidelined a proposal for a new factory that would have threatened endangered dolphins, signaling a new priority on environmental considerations.

By Correspondent / April 26, 2011

A pink dolphin swims in the Rio Negro in Brazil. In Taiwan's west coast, a steep dropoff of rare pink-hued dolphins is blamed largely on pollution from the high number of coastal factories that have driven economic growth at the cost of the environment over the past three decades.




About 100 rare pink-hued dolphins still swim off Taiwan's west coast, a steep dropoff blamed largely on pollution from the high number of coastal factories that have driven economic growth at the cost of the environment over the past three decades.

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Now, rebuilding the dolphin population is getting priority over building more factories.

In the latest signal that Taiwan is increasingly placing environmental concerns over economic growth, President Ma Ying-jeou of the historically pro-development Nationalist party announced over the weekend that he opposes building a massive petrochemical plant on the west coast that would have further threatened a dolphin population only discovered in 2002.

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The president's response, after three years of wrangling over the the $24.1 billion, 300,000 barrels-per-day Kuokuang Petrochemical refinery complex, came after public hearings April 21 and April 22 drew more than 400 people. Project opponents came by the busload to remind the government that it must consider a maturing, expanding environmental movement.

The showdown over the petrochemical plant and the president's condemnation of the project signal that the industrialized island's environmental concerns have reached a critical mass where officials are suddenly factoring in popular sentiment before issuing permits. The refinery's fate is likely to set a tone for future projects that threaten air quality, open space, or wildlife – a shift from decades of fast economic growth that led Taiwan to become one of Asia's four economic tigers in the 1980s along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea.

"Taiwan's public has begun to consider whether we need more heavy industry," says Kan Chen-yi, secretary of the Taiwan Mazu Fish Conservation Union, a group that led the petrochemical plant opposition. "Everything has an economic angle, and the GDP is a consideration, but it's not the only one anymore."

Dolphins rally opponents

Environmental groups feared that the refinery complex, led by Taiwan's state-run CPC Corp, would foul the air and hurt the population of pink-hued Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins that swim near the already polluted shore. The past 30 years of industrialization has negatively affected the dolphin population "and there is no reason to believe that the causes have stopped, or even slowed," according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

CPC declined comment on the project last week. Its only recourse now is to reapply from scratch.

"The government does not support Kuokuang Petrochemical's position on investment in Changhua County," President Ma said in unusually blunt language April 23, referring to the area where the project may threaten migratory dolphins and air quality.

He did not completely nix the plant, saying project leaders would "use this opportunity to review Taiwan's whole industrial structure and policy direction, promote an upgrade of the petrochemical industry, and move toward high-value development."

How environmentalists gained a voice


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