Taiwan shifts from pollution victim to perpetrator

Monday, January 9, 2017
The China Post

By Sun Hsin Hsuan -- In April 2016, a high court rejected an appeal to increase the fine against the Radio Company of America (RCA), imposed on the firm after it caused one of the worst industrial pollution disasters in Taiwan's history 24 years earlier.

The appellants were seeking to have the fine raised almost ten-fold, from NT$560 million to NT$5.58 billion.

For years, RCA employees in Taiwan were exposed to cancer-causing pollutants. The employees were not given appropriate safety equipment, nor were they informed of the risks attached to their work.

Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 employees out of a workforce of 20,000 developed cancer. 216 have since died.

In the same month as the rejected appeal, the waters along a 200-kilometer coastal stretch in central Vietnam were found severely polluted.

The pollutants killed tons of fish, destroying the environment, and along with it the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of residents.

But the source of what Vietnam's prime minister called the “worst environmental disaster this country has ever seen,” was not a Western multinational, but a Taiwanese-owned steel plant and subsidiary of petrochemical conglomerate Formosa Plastics.

The two incidents, though separated by almost 30 years, bear striking similarities.

The only difference now, is that Taiwan has turned from victim into persecutor.

Suppressed Protests, Rejected Lawsuits, Restored Operations

In late June of 2016, Formosa Plastics apologized to the Vietnamese people with a bow from company representatives.

The firm admitted to polluting the waters — albeit after denying any wrongdoing for two months.

Vietnam's central government slapped Formosa Plastics with a US$500 million fine to compensate residents.

But until now, those affected by the incident have yet to receive a single dollar in compensation, and there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the polluted waters are now clean.

Meanwhile, the steel plant has resumed operations, despite continued protests from locals and overseas Vietnamese.

In the eight months since, tons of dead fish have continued to wash ashore.

Human rights activist and priest Peter Nguyen Van Hung, speaking with The China Post on Friday, also claimed that two Formosa Plastics employees tasked with diving under water and checking on waste-releasing pipelines had died.

According to the Vietnam Express newspaper, several peaceful protests outside the Ha Tinh steel plant and Formosa Plastics headquarters in Vietnam turned violent as police officers and private security beat demonstrators, while citizen journalists were detained for days on grounds of “inciting social instability by taking photos of the protest to post on social media.”

A Vietnamese court rejected a class action lawsuit filed by over 500 residents who claim that their lives have been severely impacted by the incident.

Adding fuel to the fire, a Formosa Plastics representative surnamed Chu enraged locals by telling a packed press conference shortly after the incident broke that Vietnam had to choose either fishing or the country's industrial development.

Chu's remarks led to the #ichoosefish campaign on social media, setting off a wave of condemnation against Formosa Plastics and raising awareness of the incident internationally.

Confidentiality Agreement

But despite pressure from groups both inside and outside Vietnam, Formosa Plastics still refuses to clarify what chemical compounds were released into the water, what harm they pose to humans and the environment, and how long will take for the local ecosystem to recover and the details of any cleanup operation.

”The compensation is crucial for residents to get past these tough few months, but what they care about the most is how to get their lives back,” the Vietnamese priest Hung said, who is in Taiwan seeking assistance from the government in Taipei.

”The US$500 million just evaporated into thin air. We want transparency, we want know how the government is using that money, and when we can start fishing again.”

The Vietnamese government said that it has signed a confidentiality agreement with Formosa Plastics, which prevents both sides from divulging any details of the agreement.

Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Chen Man-li (陳曼麗) organized a public hearing last week on the incident, collecting ideas from civic groups on how the nation's law could be amended to ensure that no Taiwanese company can repeat the actions of firms like Formosa Plastics in the future.

Chen told The China Post that current laws do not prevent a local company from signing such confidentiality agreements with foreign governments, nor can they compel Taiwanese companies to abide by international standards on pollution controls when operating in a foreign country.

Chen said that with the nation eager to expand its commercial interests abroad — especially in Southeast Asian countries where environmental protection laws are relatively weak — “we must remember never to become the RCA that we so strongly disgusted with.”

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