Thu, March 3, 2022
5:00 PM – 6:30 PM PT
Join a discussion about Formosa Plastics Corporation’s environmental harms in coastal communities in Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States. Panelists include community advocates and researchers working locally and across borders.
Despite rising concerns about pollution and climate change, the global petrochemical industry is expanding, in part because of the shale gas boom, which also has caused widespread environmental harms. This tangle of developments has impacted communities around the world, calling for coordinated action across geography, generation and issue areas. This seminar will focus on harms caused by the operations of Formosa Plastics Corporation in Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States, focusing on coastal communities. Panelists include people who have spent years working to address these harms in different ways.
Panels and seminar participants will address four questions:
What forms of injustice do you see in this case?
Xin mời quý vị tham gia buổi thảo luận về tác hại môi trường do Tập đoàn Chất nhựa Formosa gây ra tại các cộng đồng ven biển ở Đài Loan, Việt Nam và Hoa Kỳ. Những vị tham luận viên gồm có những người tranh đấu cho cộng đồng và các nhà nghiên cứu làm việc tại địa phương và xuyên biên giới....Read more
In the late 1990s, Formosa Plastics began operating the Sixth Naphtha Cracker Complex in Yunlin County – the agricultural center of Taiwan. The 6,000-acre petrochemical site has a long history of explosive accidents, safety violations, and routine pollution that impacts nearby fishing and farming communities.
Oyster fishers have been active in protesting and documenting pollution around the petrochemical complex. Following an environmental health study that showed elevated cancer risks in nearby communities (Lee et al 2021), a group of residents launched a collective toxic tort case against the company that is still ongoing (Jobin 2020). Related efforts = focus on the relocation of an elementary school near the Formosa plant (Chen 2016).
A report by environemntal advocate Xavier Sun that documents water pollution at outfalls around the Sixth Naphtha Cracker Complex through the collection of plastic pellets ("nurdles").Read more
Yunlin District Court, March 22, 2016. The third court hearing of Chang et al. (Taisi residents) v. five representative companies of the Sixth Naphtha petrochemical zone.
A panoramic view of the court: the defendants’ lawyers on the left and the plaintiffs’ lawyers on the right. In the first row of the audience were three plaintiffs who accompanied Brother Wu (a leader in organizing the plaintiffs’ group) and documentary filmmaker Hao-chung Chan (author of Shrouding the Clouds, about air pollution from the Sixth Naphtha cracker). The last row was occupied by FPG employees.
Defendant attorney Chen during one of her aggressive criticisms of plaintiffs’ lawyers arguments on the causal link between air pollutants and the plaintiffs’ cancers.
A defendant lawyer in plain-clothes taking notes and looking tired of long discussions on causality.
Yunlin District Court, March 22, 2016.
Defendant attorney Tsai feels very much at home in the courtroom, frequently leaving the seat assigned to the defendants to sit in the middle of the courtroom at the desk normally reserved for experts and the plaintiffs, translating to the judge in “plain Chinese”, i.e., oversimplifying and misleading the problem of causality between air pollutants and cancers.
The judge, who tends to prefer this language, gives the defendants much fewer opportunities to have their say.
The head of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Att. Thomas Chan. After this hearing, in May 2016, he was invited to stand as the Deputy Minister of the Environmental Protection Administration (Taiwan EPA), a position he left in September 2018. In the meantime, he could not attend anymore court hearings and his younger colleagues had a harder time with the judge.
Yunlin District Court, Friday 13, January 2017.
The fifth court hearing was a black Friday for the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The judge wanted the discussion to proceed from the first plaintiff and the first defendant, and so on, one after another. Although it is a strange way to approach problems of causality in a case of industrial pollution, the defendants’ lawyers were very happy with that.
Furthermore, the judge rejected the plaintiffs’ request to have Prof. Chan Chang Chuan (NTU College of Public Health) testify as an expert at the bar, despite the fact he had conducted a lot of excellent epidemiological research on the case. For the sake of neutrality, the judge prefered to ask two other experts, although they had not conducted research on the case.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Shu-fang Huang discussed the huge amount of surveillance data on air pollution, which were falsified by Formosa Plastics, breaching the Air Pollution Control Act. This made the headlines the previous day, but the judge rejected the problem: “I don’t care about newspapers!”
Yunlin District Court, September 2017, the sixth court hearing.
Ms. Wu, the wife of a plaintiff with cancer, was sitting behind me; as we were waiting for the hearing to start, I asked her about her husband’s health; she started crying.
And soon after the discussion began, defendant Att. Tsai went to sit in the middle of the courtroom to argue that the research by Chan C.C. was “only one point of view”.
Defendant lawyer Att. Chen further underlines that his research is “too abstract”, lacking concrete facts.
The judge is so ignorant of what epidemiological evidence is—and so little interested in learning about it—that the defendants can easily play their misleading game.
When it’s time for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to speak, he starts sleeping!
Yunlin District Court, 10 0ctober 2019.
Today the judge grew tired of the long speeches by the defendants and asks them to give him a simple definition of what they mean by "danger" 危險.
I tried to adopt the judge’s position to imagine how he might appreciate defendant Att. Tsai’s translations of the debate in “plain Chinese”, the other lawyers and the audience behind: a few plaintiffs and environmental groups in the first row, including a foreigner (me), and FPG employees in the third row.
For the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the judge requests they provide “simple standards” to make a decision on causality.
On the left, defendant Att. Chang argues that the plaintiffs must prove a reasonable probability that “substances” from the petrochemical zone cause cancer (the defendants do not use the words “air pollutants”). At least now, they do not argue that the plaintiffs should prove which substance from which company chimney is causing the plaintiffs’ cancers, as they asked for during the first hearings.
Yunlin District Court, 10 0ctober 2019.
The judge seems to spend little time reading the documents provided by the lawyers. And most of the time, he adopts a rather passive attitude during the court hearings. Instead of inviting the plaintiffs into the court to explain their motivations for sueing the companies, and instead of organizing a contradictory debate between experts suggested by the two sides, he seems obsessed to request the two sides agree on one expert who could decide if there is a causality between the cancers and what is emitted in the industrial zone. Then he gets angry about the debate having no end. At the previous hearing, he was also angry because he thought environmental groups attending the hearings had made audio recordings and shared some of his weird behaviors with the defendants’ lawyers.
Yunlin District Court, 10 0ctober 2019.
For once, the judge made a sound request of the lawyers: to translate those complex and very technical matters into plain Chinese. Defendant Att. Tsai has been eager to meet this demand, punctuating his explanation in Mandarin with some Taiwanese language. Actually, many plaintiffs do not really understand Mandarin, so it would be helpful for them if the hearings could be conducted in Taiwanese. But anyhow, given the little attention the judge gives them, these hearings are obviously not framed for them.
Tainan High Court, 23 February 2021.
Part of the lawsuit has recently started in the high court. The first hearing provided a sharp contrast with the atmosphere in the district court. The judge begins with inviting the plaintiffs’ lawyers to sum up their statement of appeal and she listens carefully to it. The precision of her questions and propositions to both sides suggest that she had carefully read the documents submitted to the court by the lawyers.
And here is Att. Tsai who comes again in the middle of the room for his show. Despite the rules that impose the wearing of masks in prevention of the Covid-19, he just takes it off. His excuse is that it’s not convenient for speaking. But after five minutes, the judge finally asks him to put the mask back on.
Defendant Att. Chen attempts to reuse the district court judge’s request for a simple definition of danger, but this time it’s not convincing enough for the judge.
Defendant Att. Wu argues that the plaintiffs must prove “a reasonable probability” of at least 50% of risk. “In Taiwan, there’s a new case of cancer every five minutes. These can’t be all attributed to air pollution. Moreover, our company ranks among one of the best in the world for the respect of environmental protection. Besides, the plaintiffs should not treat the courtroom as if it were an academic conference. Scientific simulations are not equal to solid data from the EPA.”
Taiwan's current Democratic Progressive Party has increased efforts to transition from a "brown to a green economy" (Duo & Jie 2014). Long-standing environmental activism in Taixi – a village especially impacted by Formosa Plastic's seasonal air pollution – has recently led to experiments with community energy infrastructure (Lai 2021). Such community projects are shadowed by Formosa Plastics’ influence in political and economic associations, and high-profile corporate social responsibility projects (Lin 2021).
Formosa Plastics has operated a petrochemical complex in Calhoun County, Texas since the 1980s. In addition to worker injuries and explosions, the plant is responsible for the illegal discharge of plastic powder and pellets (so-called "nurdles") that pollute nearby creeks and bays.
In 2019, fisherwoman Diane Wilson and a group of ex-Formosa workers achieved a historic $50 million settlement with Formosa Plastics in Texas. Wilson has been an active collaborator with the Formosa Plastics Global Archive, helping build collections of materials about the lawsuit and environmental activism in Calhoun County. Much of the material in the Calhoun County collections are freely accessible for use by journalists, researchers and students.
Funds from the settlement with Formosa Plastics are managed by the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust, which runs a set of projects to clean up and revitalize the local environment. One project is will the establish a sustainable fishing cooperative. Plans for this project are shadowed by a proposed expansion of the Calhoun County Port to increase oil exports. The port expansion will unsettle a marine Superfund site with extensive mercury contamination.
In 2012, Diane Wilson led an oral history project with over a dozen fishermen in Seadrift, Texas.
In April 2016, toxic discharges from a Formosa-owned Steel plant on the North Central Coast of Vietnam led to a massive fish kill. Lack of accountability and compensation for impacted coastal communities led to large-scale protests and the arrest of several environmental activists (see timeline by Trang 2017).
The marine disaster and authoritarian response have led to the development of a transnational environmental justice network around the incident (Fan et al. 2020). Following several unsuccessful attempts to take legal action in Vietnam, a group of 7,000 victims launched a civil lawsuit against Formosa in Taiwan (press release 2022).
In the wake of Formosa’s Vietnam coastal disaster, an estimated 18,000 fishing boats were unable to go out to sea, impacting more than 40,000 fisherpeople (Jobin & Ying 2020). This forced many residents to seek jobs in southern provinces but also to migrate to Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan as well as Europe and the United States. While the government has promised support, migrants have yet to receive compensation to pay for broker fees and other related costs.
Trailer for a documentary film (in production, release 2023) that focuses on the protests, advocacy and legal action around the Vietnam marine disaster.