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Thousands of Vietnamese sue investors of FPG unit

APRIL 2016 SPILL:The lawsuit over a toxic chemical spill was filed in Taipei against FPG, China Steel and JFE Steel, the main investors in Formosa Ha Tinh Steel

By Lin Chia-nan  /  Staff reporter

Representatives of nearly 8,000 Vietnamese who claim to have suffered from marine pollution caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp hold a news conference in Taipei yesterday after they filed a lawsuit against the company’s investors.

Photo: CNA

Almost 8,000 Vietnamese saying they have suffered from marine pollution caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp (台塑河靜鋼鐵興業) yesterday filed a lawsuit in Taipei against the company’s investors, seeking NT$140 million (US$4.4 million) in compensation.

A spill of toxic chemicals from the Formosa Plastics Group (FPG, 台塑集團) unit’s under-construction steel plant in April 2016 caused mass fish deaths in waters off central Vietnam.

After a Vietnamese government report confirmed Formosa Ha Tinh’s accountability, the company in June of that year agreed to pay US$500 million in compensation for discharging water containing chemicals such as phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxides.

A coalition of Taiwanese and Vietnamese groups yesterday morning helped file the lawsuit at the Taipei District Court on behalf of 7,875 Vietnamese plaintiffs against the company’s main investors — FPG, China Steel Corp (中鋼) and Japan’s JFE Steel Corp — as they said many victims have not received compensation.

Members of the coalition protested yesterday afternoon outside Sunworld Dynasty Hotel, where FPG was holding its annual shareholders’ meeting.

After the spill, many Vietnamese fishers could no longer catch fish for a living and had to sell their boats, said Nguyen Hong Linh, a Vietnamese Catholic priest.

During protests in Vietnam over the spill, demonstrators were often abused or even arrested by the government, but they expect Taiwan’s rule of law to uphold justice for them, he said.

Taiwanese authorities should demonstrate that “Taiwan is a nation that can reflect on its own wrongs,” rather than one that turns a blind eye to victims, Environmental Jurists Association chairperson Chang Yu-yin (張譽尹) said.

Plaintiffs are claiming an aggregate compensation of NT$140 million, with individual claims varying with the level of proof attesting to their losses, he said.

The court must hold a hearing to decide whether to accept the case, but even if it accepts, deciding how to apply Vietnamese law to determine the firm’s liabilities and evidence of victims’ losses would be challenging, he added.

“In Vietnam, very few people have been compensated for the economic loss caused by marine pollution,” Paul Jobin, an associate research fellow at Academic Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, who traveled to Vietnam’s Ha Tinh and Quang Binh provinces last year, said at the protest.

“This lawsuit means a breakthrough in transnational advocacy for environmental justice,” Jobin said. “It is time for big polluters like FPG to take environmental safety and health issues very seriously.”

FPG released a statement saying it had paid the US$500 million fine imposed two years ago by the Vietnamese government as compensation for the losses of fishers in four Vietnamese provinces.

It had distributed the money to the affected fishers as requested by the Vietnamese government, the statement said.

The steel plant’s wastewater treatment has been monitored 24 hours a day by the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and there have been no sign of illegal actions, it said.

The Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Co, which runs the steel plant, also said that its level of wastewater and exhaust emissions have measured up to Vietnamese government’s standards over the past two years.

The plant in the Vung Ang Economic Zone of Ha Tinh Province is the biggest integrated steel mill in Southeast Asia. Its first furnace became operational on May 29, 2017, and the second one on May 18 last year.

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