Petrochemical Industry Incidents Must Not Become Chronic
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 7, 2010
The Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire had yet to fade from public memory, when the Chiayi Nanya Plant caught fire on Sunday. Thick black smoke billowed into the sky. The conflagration lasted over 10 hours. It burned from morning to midnight. Firefighters could only watch helplessly. Helicopters joined the fight. But they amounted to a drop in the bucket, and were of no help whatsoever. The shocking images were communicated to everyone on television. The fire did not burn just the Formosa Plastics Group. It burned the entire petrochemical industry. It brought public perceptions of the petrochemical industry to a new low.
The Formosa Plastics Group has long been a benchmark company. Group founder Wang Yung-ching was known as "the god of enterprise." Through strict and efficient management, Formosa Plastics Group gained the public trust. But following Wang Yung-ching's death, the Formosa Plastics Group was rocked by wave after wave of inheritence battles. This has undeniably harmed the image of the Formosa Plastics Group. But it was only an internal family affair. The Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire and the Nanya Plant fire reveal fundamental problems with plant management. They have tarnished the diamond-like public image Formosa Plastics took decades to establish.
The Formosa Plastics Group's response to the Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire was inadequate. They clearly ignored the impact of the fire on local residents, and the negative public perception it created. Following the Nanya Plant fire, Formosa Plastics Group Chairman Wang Wen-yuan went down to Chiayi the very next day. He tried to understand the situation, and apologized to the local inhabitants. The Formosa Plastics Group still needs to follow up on matters such as compensation. But this high-level response by Formosa Plastics was a significant improvement over its response to the Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire. At least the perception among local residents and the general public is better.
Following the Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire, a Formosa Plastics Group internal review found that its public relations initiatives were inadequate. It stressed that the Formosa Plastics Group Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant did its utmost to give back to the community, but encountered a public backlash. It expressed considerable indignation. Formosa Plastics may be engaged in a highly polluting petrochemical industry. But in all fairness, it has spared no expense investing in environmental protection facilities. The Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant has never stopped giving back to the local community. Local inhabitants have benefitted greatly. These past efforts and contributions cannot be ignored. Formosa Plastics performed many good deeds and gave back much to the community. It created many employment opportunities. But nothing is more important than peoples' lives and safety. When a huge conflagration leaves people feeling unsafe, when they feel their land has become a wasteland, public relations are irrelevant. Therefore, the Formosa Plastics Group cab strengthen its public relations. It can complain about other matters. But the thing it should do most is return to its main business, and ensure industrial safety.
The Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire and the Nanya Plant fire showed the public how helpless and incompetent our domestic fire fighters were when faced with petrochemical plant accidents and fires. The fires created a crisis of confidence in the government's ability. Public safety is an important issue for a variety of plants, including petrochemical industry plants. In the event of an accident, these plants may emit poison gasses or catch fire. The consequences may be quite serious. Disaster relief for these plants is far more complex than outsiders can imagine. For example, once certain petrochemicals catch fire, they cannot be extinguished. One can only watch helplessly as they burn. Once certain materials catch fire, the fires can be extinguished only with special fire-fighting equipment. In the Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire and Nanya fire, the local fire brigade was the main force. It was obviously not up to the job. The government's top priorities, besides ensuring plant safety, include studying similar petrochemical plant fires, in order to establish more efficient fire fighting capabilities.
The Formosa Plastics fires were disasters for the petrochemical industry. The plans for the China Petroleum Company's Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant, commonly known as the Number Eight Naphtha Cracking Plant, have been impacted by the Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire. The government still insists the Number Eight Naphtha Cracking Plant is necessary. But public perceptions have changed. Even assuming the Number Eight Naphtha Cracking Plant is approved, it will inevitably provoke to public controversy. From one perspective, the Number Eight Naphtha Cracking Plant is "collateral damage" from the Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire. It may not have been burned, but it is already gasping for air. The Number Six Naphtha Cracking Plant fire and the Nanya Plant fire provoked strong protests by local residents. The manufacturers must now pay compensation and give something back to the community. Failure to handle these matters properly could trigger a chain reaction, leading to immense pressure on the construction of petrochemical plants everywhere. The government, concerned parties, and business firms must take precautions and make the necessary preparations.
The annual production value of Taiwan's petrochemical industry is four trillion dollars. Related industries add up to even more. Formosa Plastics is an industry leader. It is one of the most important industries on Taiwan. One fire after another in Formosa Plastics Group factories has cast a shadow over the group and the industry as a whole. We hope that Formosa Plastics and the relevant government agencies will learn from the incident, identify any problems, see their own shortcomings, and make any necessary improvements. They must avoid more major plant fires. They must not allow fires that cannot be extinguished to occur again.