Taiwan’s beautiful mountains and rivers are being destroyed. Factories are releasing toxic wastewater, dumping waste and mercury sludge wherever they want, polluting the air, overdeveloping hillsides and cutting down forests.
Environmental pollution is getting increasingly serious with every passing day. When Advanced Semiconductor Engineering (ASE) was found not guilty of releasing toxic wastewater, the public finally reacted with an uproar of complaints against the judicial system.
However, complaining is one thing and changing the law another: Why is the situation continuing to deteriorate?
I have worked as a prosecutor in the grassroots for many years and have frontline experience of environmental crime. This experience has taught me one thing: Gathering evidence is difficult. Regardless of how good our laws are on paper and how loudly people are calling for environmental protection, companies continue to break the law and the government fails to catch them.
Why? Because unless someone on the inside makes a report or leaks information, we do not have the evidence required to bring a lawsuit. Without forceful, mobile investigative officers, it will be impossible to find any.
To put it bluntly, if we do not know who broke the law, we will not be able to gather the necessary evidence, even if we know that the law has been broken. No matter how heavy the penalty, we will not be able to arrest anyone, not to mention convict them.
Who would know if a factory has been dumping toxic wastewater? The employees, of course. Would they report that information? Not if they are smart. There are no advantages to reporting it.
If someone really wants to become a hero in the fight for environmental protection, being fired is the least of their concerns, nor is being convicted as an accomplice.
If we do not get the evidence and fail to prove the case, the company would hire a mighty team of lawyers to discuss the application scope of the Water Pollution Control Act (水污染防治法) with the judge — please see the ASE case — and while they get off scot-free, the whistle-blower would be in a mess for the rest of their life. The system strongly encourages employees to listen to their boss and never admit to anything.
Can something be done by city and county investigators if no one on the inside provides any information? Most people do not understand the difficult situation in which local civil servants find themselves. There are staff shortages, but even worse, if they go to a factory to investigate a report, they can count themselves lucky if they are only denounced for causing a disturbance. If worse comes to worst, there would be lobbying by legislators and complaints from superiors accusing them of being meddlesome.
The most problematic issue is how far grassroots officials are willing to push the issue during the early stages of verifying pollution evidence.
Article 50 of the Water Pollution Control Act stipulates that factories that avoid the gathering of evidence by officials can be fined between NT$30,000 and NT$3 million (US$966 and US$96,640). This a wide scope, and legislators are assuredly keeping a close eye on what is happening.
Furthermore, city and county governments are composed of gentle people without any serious firepower, police officers cannot hide next to ditches day and night to take samples of polluted water and although the National Police Administration does have a few environmental officers, there are too few of them and they lack the resources they need.
In addition, they do not fall under the command of city and county governments and there is not enough horizontal contact between agencies.
As if that were not enough, performance rewards are small, so why would they work themselves to death?
The judicial system is being drowned in demands that Taiwan’s environment be saved. We must shake off old, traditional thinking and coordinate all efforts.
First, a whistle-blower clause should be added to every piece of environmental legislation and regulation, clearly stating that anyone reporting evidence would be exempt from punishment and receive a huge reward from confiscated illegal profits or fines. The result would be that companies would increase their controls to avoid being reported by their employees. In addition, firing someone for whistle-blowing should be prohibited.
Second, to become effective, the environmental police should be greatly expanded, performance rewards should be increased and they should be mobile and communicate with environmental protection departments at city and county governments.
Judicial reform must not be allowed to once again focus on the wrong thing — environmental crime must be rooted out and public complaints must be eliminated.
Lin Ta is a prosecutor in the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office and a member of the Committee for the National Affairs Conference on Judicial Reform.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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