The ‘Ghost’ Shadowing Taiwan’s Industrial Polluters
Jul 09, 2020

For more than 20 years, professor Huang Huan-chang has been tracking illegal dumps of industrial sludge and heavy metals, exposing the dark side of Taiwan’s economic prowess. Yet despite his best efforts, strong incentives remain for the illicit practices to continue.

A delicious feast was laid out on a red tablecloth, its wide range of colors and flavors particularly alluring from afar. But perused from up close, this “banquet” was downright creepy.

The “dishes” on the table consisted of multi-colored sandwiches, Yunlin sulfur-smoked lime ash coconut crisps, Taoyuan spicy stir-fried green snails, Kaohsiung truffle chocolates, Tainan chromium taro balls and Changhua cadmium champion rice.

“The ingredients for these dishes were produced in Taiwan and harvested from farmland, fish ponds, river banks and seashores,” read the description of the photograph in a 2017 photo exhibit at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

“Through special preparation methods, these dishes highlight the foods’ delicious flavors. They include many elements and artificial sweetness, and are rich in nutrients that whet the appetite. Also, all of the ingredients have traceability records and government guarantees,” the display read.

In fact, the areas where these “ingredients” were produced were all damaged by toxic industrial waste and posed hazards to human health.

For the past 20 years, Huang Huan-chang (黃煥彰), an associate professor of nursing at Chung Hwa University of Medical Technology, has led volunteers from Tainan Community University (TCU) in recording and reporting industrial waste dumps around Taiwan, resulting in a shocking industrial pollution map of the island.

The most common form of waste discovered by Huang’s team is sludge, especially sludge full of heavy metals such as the thousands of metric tons of mercury-filled waste generated by petrochemical factories and dumped decades ago by waste removal companies in Xinyuan Township in northern Pingtung County.

Bury the Waste, Cover it with a Factory

Taiwan’s steel industry generates about 8 million metric tons of blast furnace slag that often ends up on farmland or in fish ponds. TCU began tracking the dumping of slag and other industrial waste in Kaohsiung in the Qishan Water Resource Conservation Area starting in 2013 and in Lianxi Lake in Luzhu District in 2015 and found it to produce strange yellow and green colors in the waters in both places with unknown sources of toxicity.

Another waste material commonly found in southern Taiwan is aluminum slag, a by-product of metal processing. Hundreds of industrial bulk bags filled with the slag can be found scattered on farmland in Kanding in Pingtung County, and they give off a pungent ammonia odor when exposed to rain.

More recently, Huang has discovered a new dumping method: waste disposal companies rent fish ponds and fill them to the brim with waste, cover and plug them with cement, and then build corrugated steel buildings on top to rent out as factories. They may also cover the cement with solar panels, leaving no visible hint of the original waste dump.

Particularly petrifying to many people is the possibility of heavy metals polluting farmland or fields where livestock graze. In Changhua County, for example, fears of the rice grown there being contaminated with cadmium have persisted for more than 30 years, and in 2009, duck meat and duck eggs in Dapingding in southeast Kaohsiung were suspected of being contaminated with dioxins.

Taiwan has one of the most advanced high-tech sectors in the world, so why is industrial waste still liberally dumped in the countryside, potentially contaminating the country’s food supply?

Simply put, greed.

‘Dirty Wealth’

Some companies could simply care less about protecting the environment, but even more vexing are recycling enterprises that tout the virtues of the circular economy yet only go halfway in the name of greed and windfall profits.

Earlier this year in April, the Changhua District Prosecutors Office cracked a case in which an industrial waste treatment plant colluded with a gravel factory to secretly bury sludge generated by high-tech companies alongside rivers and in the mountains. They produced fake invoices to cover their tracks and raked in more than NT$600 million in illicit gains. The sources of the sludge included state-owned enterprises and well-known publicly listed companies.

Why didn’t they just process the sludge? Wang Ming-jen, the chief prosecutor at the Changhua prosecutors office, explained that waste treatment plants charge tech companies about NT$8,000 per metric ton to process their waste and in theory should use their expertise to turn it into construction aggregate used in concrete. But aggregate sells for only about NT$10-NT$20 per metric ton, and one owner of a waste treatment plant admitted “it’s really hard to sell.”

Dumping the waste rather than treating it is far more lucrative, earning waste processors a net NT$7,000 per metric ton of waste.

This huge profit incentive has encouraged waste removal and treatment companies to take risks while the original generators of the sludge protest their innocence, arguing they entrusted the waste to legal businesses that used their legal standing to cover up illegal activities and even collude with others to amass huge profits.

Though many think such illegal maneuvers are remnants of the past, they are in fact still very much part of the present.

Nobody is more familiar with the history of Taiwan’s industrial waste than Chung Hwa University of Medical Technology’s Huang. He has been seen wandering around pretty much every site in Taiwan where industrial waste has been dumped.

“One manager at a company that was polluting complained that he felt like he was battling with a ghost; no matter where he went, I would follow in his shadow,” Huang recalled.

Passionately Tracking Waste for 20 Years

In mid-June, CommonWealth reporters joined Huang in a small boat, navigating along the banks of the Erren River dividing Tainan and Kaohsiung to get a firsthand look at the problem.

A pile of clean stones was visible on the riverbank from afar, but around them was buried half a century of dumped waste from electronics factories, with capacitors, PC boards, and cables embedded in the silt. Many copper components had been pulverized by the weather into a copper-green powder.

“I’ve collected many electronic ‘fossils’ like this to set up a museum on contemporary industrial civilization in Taiwan,” Huang says while picking up one of those “fossils” about the size of a pineapple that contains capacitors, resistors and other waste metals and carefully putting it into a bag.

On that same day, students from a nearby middle school were on a field trip on the Erren River to learn how it had been polluted by electronic waste and that the pollution remains with us to this day.

The “fossil” that Huang picked up quickly turned into a teaching material.

Professor Huang stressed that when people see this waste near them they tend to ignore it, but copper wire develops a layer of blue-green verdigris that can filter into the soil, drinking water and agricultural products. The TCU volunteers took out a heavy metals testing device to test the soil and found concentrations of the heavy metals nickel, lead and zinc dozens of times higher than the standard, and the concentration of copper exceeded the standard 1,500-fold.

For his perseverance in tracking down pollution from industrial waste, Huang was honored with a Social Education Contribution Award in the “Individual” category from the Ministry of Education in 2018.

He and the TCU volunteers have not only discovered more than 100 sites around Taiwan where industrial waste has been dumped, they have also developed a long-term partnership with law enforcement units.

“Professor Huang is a really passionate ‘ojisan,’” said Tainan Deputy Chief Prosecutor Lin Chung-pin, using the informal Japanese term for an older man.

Because of the situation along the Erren River, Lin made contact with the TCU volunteers. They gradually developed an unusual partnership, in contrast to the normally adversarial relationship between public agencies and environmental groups.

“I’ve picked up a lot of specialized knowledge in areas such as environmental engineering and chemistry from professor Huang,” Lin said.

Critical Link to Food Security

Around 2005, when Huang found out about a river restoration project taking place along the Erren River, he noticed bulldozers digging up buried industrial waste and tossing it directly into the river. But at the time, the then-Tainan County river and environmental protection bureaus had no idea how to get involved.

After that, the Tainan District Prosecutors Office set up an unprecedented partnership between prosecutors, police and environmentalists to crack down on environmental crimes. The volunteers were on the front lines reporting cases and prosecutors and police would follow up to identify and remove major sources of pollution from the Erren River, Yanshui River, Chianan Irrigation Channel, and Agongdian River.

Lin believed that when administrative agencies, civic groups and the police work together, many intractable problems can be solved. Today, Taiwan’s cities and counties hold annual meetings on economic crimes that bring prosecutors, police and environmentalists together, but only Tainan has made it a point to include civic groups.

Behind his own inquests and cooperation with law enforcement authorities, Huang has also pursued legal revisions to bring about systemic change.

At the end of 2016, environmental groups and Legislator Lin Shu-fen worked together to amend the Waste Disposal Act to give waste specific definitions rather than simply identifying it as “products.” Fines were raised and responsibility for the waste was traced back to the source so that the offending tech manufacturers could no longer avoid responsibility with the excuse: “I gave it to a legal [waste disposal] company.”

What concerns Huang, however, is that waste buried in the soil can affect groundwater and fish ponds, and truly clean land is increasingly rare.

“Toxicity in the soil inevitably gets back into the food people eat and enters people’s bodies,” he said.

Huang has passionately searched for and identified hidden pollutants for decades, but what he most craves is the day when Taiwan can once again enjoy the original flavors of white rice, fish and shrimps, and fruit emanating from its land and waters, clean and uncontaminated. That may be a tall order, considering the incentives that remain for waste to be recklessly dumped.

By Kwangyin Liu