Taiwan's Amateur Enviro-Spies ; to Catch Polluters, the Government Is Turning to Volunteers with Digital Cameras

Article excerpt

Portuguese sailors in the 15th century named Taiwain "Formosa," meaning "beautiful island." But on most days, it's hard to even see the mountainous island through the shroud of smog. So the government is fighting back, tightening environmental rules, and enlisting an army of citizen sleuths to spy on Taiwan's biggest polluters.

These environmental spies are armed with binoculars, notepads, and digital cameras, and have been tasked with snooping around small businesses and big corporations alike to make sure they're putting their toxins and trash in the right place.

Deputizing volunteers to be enviro-snoops is just the latest effort by Taiwan to curb the pollution that has accompanied its rapid development over the past 50 years. It's also indicative of an emerging civic activism in this young democracy.

Taiwan's economic path from heavy industry to high tech has taken a toll on the nation's air and water quality. While the business community has had five years to comply with tougher waste disposal and recycling rules, companies continue to circumvent the law by dumping waste illegally.

Reports of toxic waste found in rivers and buried near residential areas have stretched environmental officers so thin that they are struggling to enforce the island's environmental laws. One high-profile case revealed that toxic chemicals were being secretly dumped in Taoyuan County's Lungtan Township, where groundwater pollution has led to serious illness among local residents. Elsewhere, in Tainan, a factory that recycles toxic ash collected from steelmakers was found to be contaminating nearby chicken and duck farms.

The snooper scheme was introduced this year by Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to serve as an early warning system. Industrial waste is expected to hit 19.4 million tons next year, up from 18 million tons in 2001. Despite stringent rules, as much as 25 percent of the waste will not be disposed of or properly treated because of a lack of waste management companies here, say environmentalists.

"The situation is getting worse, as not many people care about the environment for our future generations," says Shi Xing-zhong, founding member of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, a nongovernmental body. "A balance has to be found between economic growth and protecting where we live," he says. …

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