The recent death of filmmaker Chi Bo-lin focused renewed attention on the ecological consequences of cement production in Taiwan.
The death of celebrated documentary filmmaker Chi Bo-lin, who was killed in a helicopter crash on June 10 while filming his latest movie, ignited a firestorm over the use of land resources in Taiwan.
Chi won a Golden Horse Award, Taiwan’s top prize for filmmakers, for his 2013 documentary Beyond Beauty – Taiwan from Above, which both lauded the island’s scenic beauty and deplored the destruction wrought on the environment in the cause of economic development. The movie shocked the viewing public with juxtaposed images of stunning beauty – the sunlit peaks of Jade Mountain and colorfully clad farmers working in bright green rice paddies – against those of horrifying destruction, such as entire mountains turned to rubble by cement quarries, and rivers of black sewage flowing from illegal factories.
Chi was unsparing in his criticism of targets ranging from betelnut farmers who plant the shallow-rooted trees on slopes vulnerable to landslides to industrial firms that pollute the rivers and air. He aimed particular venom at the cement industry for its massive marble mines that have left garbage-filled craters in Taiwan’s otherwise majestic mountains.
On his final trip in his Bell 206 light helicopter, he was in the vicinity of Fengbin in Hualien County, within kilometers of the Asia Cement Corporation’s mining and manufacturing site in Sincheng Township, adjacent to Taroko National Park. Only 10 days earlier he had stated that the Sincheng mine had been greatly expanded in the five years since he had last filmed it.
Environmentalist organizations including Citizens of Earth, Taiwan (CET), already seething after the Ministry of Economic Affairs approved an extension of Asia Cement’s mining rights by 20 years, allowing it to bypass an environmental impact assessment, started an online petition to close down the mine. Before Chi’s death, the petition had already gathered 40,000 signatures, but within days following his crash the number surged to 100,000. Conspiracy theorists even pointed a finger at Asia Cement as somehow tampering with the helicopter, in the wild suggestion that Chi’s death was actually an assassination.
The cause of the crash in fact remains unknown, as the helicopter had no known issues, the pilot was experienced, and the weather good. The helicopter’s engine was built by Rolls Royce in the United States, where it was sent for analysis, and agents of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the counterpart agency in Canada, where the helicopter was made, came to Taiwan to assist in the investigation conducted by Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council. Results of the investigation are still pending.
Chi’s filmmaking and the controversy surrounding his death suddenly thrust the cement industry into the spotlight and raised provocative questions. Should Taiwan even have a cement manufacturing industry, considering its small size and fragile landscape? Wouldn’t the island and its environment be better off importing cement from other countries where the ecology is less fraught?
Pan Cheng-cheng, formerly of CET and now with the Environmental Protection Administration as an assistant handling issues pertaining to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, asserts that cement manufacture in Taiwan needs to be curtailed “because of the nature of the geography, the population high density, and the insufficiently strict laws governing mining.” She says that open pit marble mines, or quarries, cause widespread devastation to the environment by contributing to landslides and flooding.
Cement is the binding agent in concrete, which is the world’s second most widely consumed resource, behind only water. First produced by the ancient Romans, cement is manufactured from limestone – or in Taiwan’s case, low-quality marble (which is essentially limestone that has been subjected to intense heat and pressure) – heated at high temperatures with other materials such as clay. The resulting substance, called clinker, is ground into a powder to make “Portland cement,” which is then mixed with aggregates such as gravel and sand to become concrete, the basis for so much of the world’s structures.
Cement manufacturing is usually conducted near the source of the limestone or marble, and also near to where it will be used. Only around 3% of the world’s cement is traded across borders, as the low-value bulk commodity generally isn’t cost-effective to ship, according to the World Cement Association.
Taiwan’s modern cement industry dates back to the establishment of the Taiwan Cement Corp., formed as a state-owned company in 1946 and privatized in 1951 under the leadership of the Koo family. For decades it was considered one of Taiwan’s blue-chip companies. Asia Cement was formed in 1957 as part of the giant Far Eastern Group, and moved most of its production from its original site in Hsinchu to Taiwan’s east coast in 1973 at the government’s urging. Currently, all of Taiwan’s cement mines and more than 80% of the cement production are located on the east coast. Production facilities in the southern and western regions of the island use clinker made in the east.
Taiwan Cement and Asia Cement produce all of Taiwan’s clinker and most of Taiwan’s cement. Several other cement companies either produce cement from clinker they buy from the two major firms or import their cement. In some cases, they deploy their capacity for purposes other than cement manufacturing, such as waste incineration.
Cement production in Taiwan reached a peak of about 28 million metric tons annually in the 1990s, but recent production has been less than half that amount – 12.1 million tons in 2016 – according to figures from the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA).
Essential as concrete is to modern society, it comes at a high cost to the environment. Besides the impact on the local landscape, cement production adds to the problem of carbon emissions, both indirectly from the loss of forest and directly due to the energy-intensive nature of the process, which requires kilns to be fired at 1450 degrees Celsius. The production of a ton of cement generates 400 kilograms of emissions.
The start of Taiwan’s cement industry also dates to the pre-democratic era when environment considerations and local community rights were given short shrift in the quest to develop the economy. Most mines predate modern regulations, and only a fraction of mining capacity in Taiwan has undergone an environmental impact assessment (EIA), according to data from the EPA.
Asia Cement’s Sincheng mine occupies land for which indigenous people had been granted usage rights. The company says the aboriginal people were duly compensated over four decades ago, but because due process was not strictly followed, some of the land rights remained in the hands of the indigenous population. This dispute is ongoing, but Asia Cement notes that half of its workers are aboriginals.
Amendments to the Mining Act currently being considered would require all new mines to undergo a thorough EIA, but wouldn’t affect existing mines. Just last March, Asia Cement’s Sincheng mine was granted a further 20-year extension of its mining rights, without the need for an EIA.
“They mines should all have to pass the EIA and also follow the rules that were established since the mining companies started, for example land-use laws,” says Pan, who was still with the CET at the time she spoke with TOPICS.
“If the law says that we need to do an EIA, then we will do the EIA,” responds Chang Tsu-pang, general plant manager of the Sincheng plant.
Taiwan Cement’s three quarries have all passed EIAs, according to Chairman Nelson Chang. At its Heping Cement Plant and Power Plant, Taiwan Cement is also operating a carbon-capture system invented by Taiwan’s semi-public Industrial Technology Research Institute. The process uses algae to effectively fix carbon and as a byproduct produces astaxanthin, a high-value chemical with applications in a variety of industries. The process is still in the pilot stage, however.
“It could be scaled up,” says Nelson Chang. “But the economics aren’t there yet. It’s still too expensive.” The company is also seeking green sources of energy to reduce its carbon footprint.
Asia Cement, meanwhile, touts its intense efforts at “revegetation,” or replanting the areas that have been stripped by the mine.
A cement quarry quite literally removes all of the landscape – including trees and topsoil, including the minerals beneath. Asia Cement is revegetating the ruined landscape with the original soil and the plants that once grew in it. In fact, the seeds that sprout from the replaced soil are the original seeds that were already in the soil and have been dormant.
The process involves building terraces with some depth, filling them in with the preserved original topsoil, and loading that dirt with pig manure and plants. Asia Cement has a crew of eight full-time employees working on revegetation, including growing native plants in a nursery, building the terraces, and replanting them.
The results are impressive. Areas of the mine that were stripped bare 20 years ago are now covered in lush forest that under ordinary circumstances would have taken 180-200 years to reach that stage.
Asia Cement also notes that it has made huge efforts to manage water runoff and erosion, and contends that the village near its mine is actually less at risk of landslides than others in the area. Indeed, while much of the surrounding area was heavily flooded by recent typhoons, the territory around the Sincheng mine remained free of flooding.
Cement makers in Taiwan say that forcing the industry out of Taiwan would only push responsibility for the environment onto other nations, many of which – including Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam – have lower environmental standards. In addition, shipping the cement back to Taiwan would add to the industry’s overall carbon footprint. Meanwhile, uncertain quality from exporting nations would put Taiwan’s infrastructure at risk, they argue.
Environmentalists say that they don’t want to close down the entire industry, recognizing its importance to the economy. “People say that what we want to eradicate the cement industry in Taiwan, but we aren’t saying this,” says Pan. “Our organization’s goal is clear: we believe that the mining and cement industry is workable, but only for consumption within Taiwan and not for export.”
Taiwan exported over 25% of the cement it manufactured in 2016, at lower prices than available in Taiwan, but also imported another 12% during that same period. The industry is highly seasonal, and in heavy industries in which equipment must be operated at a certain level in order to reach economies of scale, production must continue even when demand is low. Further, storing cement is tricky, as it reacts to humidity. Exports allow manufacturers to maintain capacity utilization throughout the year. Then when construction picks up and demand outstrips supply, imports are needed to fill the gap.
Asia Cement’s Chang Tzu-pang says that while his company exports around 25% of its product, the company is actively working on downsizing to reduce this amount.
Both Asia Cement and Taiwan Cement are building scale by investing heavily in China. Taiwan Cement now has 60 million tons of production capacity in China, compared to only 11 million tons in Taiwan (of which it currently uses less than eight million). Asia Cement has 22.4 million tons of production capacity in China, compared to little more than five million in Taiwan.