Kaohsiung government under siege over gas explosions

TAIPEI, Taiwan - In the wake of last week's fatal gas explosions, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) said that the Kaohsiung City Government will not shirk its responsibilities. Before yesterday, it wasn't all that clear what responsibilities the city government was prepared to take for the tragic accident.

On July 31, after receiving reports of a suspected gas leak, firefighters arrived at what was later to become the scene of a terrible accident three hours before the explosions. Several firefighters died in the line of duty that night.

Afterward, the Kaohsiung City Government began claiming that it did not know about the underground pipeline, which is rather strange, considering that the explosions occurred beside the city government's light rail construction site.

What is even stranger is that city officials claimed to know nothing about the pipeline, when in fact the city government receives money from LCY Chemical Corp. (李長榮化學工業) every year for the company's usage of the pipeline.

When asked, an official at Koahsiung's Public Works Bureau confirmed that the city had indeed been receiving money from the company. "That doesn't mean we know LCY had a pipeline here. As a matter of fact, we receive more than NT$170 million every year in fees for urban road usage. With so much data, we couldn't possibly know which (company) ... which sections ... how much money ... Because fees for urban road usage are reported by those who operate the pipelines on their own initiative."

How can a city government have a petrochemical pipeline carrying highly flammable gas beneath its roads and not know about it, considering that the pipeline runs near the construction site of a major infrastructure project and considering that the city receives money for the pipeline's usage?

Records obtained from Kaohsiung's Mass Rapid Transit Bureau indicate that at least the bureau knew about the pipeline, Kuomintang lawmaker Lin Kuo-cheng (林國正) said yesterday.

If Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers can dig up records dating back 24 years, how is it that the DPP-controlled city government can't find information dating back only two years, Lin asked rhetorically.

In response to the revelations, the mayor came out and apologised on behalf of the city government. The city government didn't "lie," the mayor stressed, attributing the confusion to a "serious lapse" in "horizontal communications."

At roughly 5:30 p.m., local media reported that Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Wu Hong-mo (吳宏謀), Hydraulic Engineering Bureau Director-General Li Sian-yi (李賢義), Public Works Bureau chief Yang Ming-chou (楊明州) and Mass Rapid Transit Bureau chief Chen Tsun-yung (陳存永) tendered their resignations to take responsibility apparently for the "serious lapse" in "horizontal communications."

After firefighters arrived at the scene on July 31, hours were spent on trying to identify what the gas was. Some speculate that if the fire department had been able to obtain accurate information upon request, perhaps the severity of the accident could have been mitigated; perhaps the tragedy could even have been avoided altogether.