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Taiwan: the 'Island of Poison'

by Chiu Yu-Tzu

Lang Nau, a Bettrang commune official says life for residents has taken a turn for the worse since the Taiwan dumping last December. Photo: Stephen O'Connell

TAIPEI, Taiwan, 4 December 1999 -- As far as environmentalists are concerned, the Formosa Plastics Group's case of dumping toxic waste in Cambodia is just the tip of the iceberg of what is happening closer to home

A year after the waste contractor for the Formosa Plastics Group was found to have dumped thousands of tonnes of mercury-tainted waste in Cambodia, Taiwan is still struggling with its global environmental reputation. In the aftermath of the accusations made against the company, which include several deaths attributed to the disposal of 3,000 tonnes of waste, harsh criticism has been aimed at the environmental policies of Taiwan, labeled the "Island of Poison" by environmentalists.

"It's been almost a year since the scandal broke, but we haven't seen any kind of redemptive action on the part of either the company or the government," said Joyce Fu of the local environmental group Green Formosa Front (GFF).

"Instead, as the presidential election is just around the corner, we see the company patronizing several promising candidates to consolidate its political ties."

Wandering waste

Under international pressure last December, Formosa Plastics was forced to move the Cambodian waste -- identified on customs documents as cement cakes -- and several tonnes of contaminated soil back to Taiwan after protesters prevented it from being shipped to the US.

Over the disapproval of Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), 4,600 tonnes of the refuse was put in temporary storage in Kaohsiung Harbor in April on the condition that it be shipped out of the country again.

Seven months later, it's still there. Efforts to send the waste to France and the US have failed, mostly as the result of pressure from foreign environmentalists.

In July, export to Seattle, Washington, was blocked by activists from the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Tacoma Longshoremen's Union. In November, Formosa Plastics was turned down by the French government, which relented to pressure by the Centre National D'information Independante sur les Dechets (CNIID). In its most recent bid to rid Taiwan of the waste -- this time to Germany -- the company has run into opposition from no less than Greenpeace.


Bettrang commune residents roam freely around the former dumpsite in spite of environmentalist concerns over continued exposure to remaining mercury, dioxin and PCBs. Photo: Stephen O'Connell.


Local reaction

It hasn't gone much better for Formosa Plastics at home. The company tried earlier this year to solve the Cambodian problem by importing the waste to its own facilities at Mailiao, Yunlin County as well as Jenwu township, Kaohsiung County. But residents got wind of the plan and organized protests, saying they had been suffering from the effects of illegal dumping for decades.

Local environmentalists like Yang Ping-yu from the Takao Hill Association for National Parks), a Kaohsiung-based environmental group, said the EPA should examine its procedures for treating toxic waste before issuing an import permit to Formosa Plastics. Yang also pointed out that the proposed site is located upstream of the Tunkang and Kaoping rivers -- sources of drinking water for people in the Kaoshiung metropolitan area.

Other environmentalists said that a similar situation exists at another site in Chihshanyen, Kaohsinug County, where at least 4,800 tonnes of mercury-contaminated waste dumped by FPG contractors had to be dug out.

Where has all the toxic waste gone?

The problems experienced by Formosa Plastics have illuminated a larger industrial waste problem facing the Taiwanese government, which has begun to examine the dumping practices of other companies.

In January the government traced waste handlers used by local chemical companies and dug at several sites in southern Taiwan. They found thousands of barrels of buried waste similar to Formosa Plastics', which had been improperly stored or exposed to the environment.

While official statistics from the EPA and the Industrial Development Bureau appear to be inconsistent, activists have claimed that some of the waste has been dumped secretly or has been turned into construction materials such as road base. Additionally, a June EPA report announced that five of 160 illegal dump sites discovered -- mostly in southern Taiwan -- were classified as being "an immediate danger" to the health of nearby residents. EPA officials said they suspect soil and groundwater at these sites were contaminated with dangerous toxic chemicals. According to a report released in January by the Environmental Quality Protection Foundation, approximately 100,000 tonnes of mercury-tainted waste generated by Taiwan's chemical plants in the past decade has completely disappeared.

Amid these revelations, the Legislative Yuan revised the Waste Disposal Act in July to hopefully make life tougher for industrial polluters. In the event of injury or death caused by illegal dumping, industrial manufacturers and waste handlers can now be punished with life imprisonment or up to NT$5 million in fines.

Critics not so sure

Still, environmental policy experts say the legislature needs to improve laws covering the efficiency of hazardous waste cleanup programs.

"The revised Waste Disposal Act lacks considerations for long-term environmental effects," said Tsai Huay-jiun, an environmental policy expert at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien. "Once an environment is polluted, it takes years to collect evidence that can prove it caused death or injury."

Tsai also pointed out that current environmental laws do not force polluters to restore the damaged environment, something Formosa Plastics didn't have to do in Cambodia.

"Recovering and restoring the environment is usually regarded as part of settling one's industrial conscience," he said.

"Taiwan was denounced in the international community due to FPG's behavior."

The Search for Justice

The idea of seeking legal redress is an intimidating one for residents of Sihanoukville who claim to be suffering from poor health after being exposed to waste dumped there by the Formosa Plastics Group. Undoubtedly, the biggest obstacle to their pursuing legal action has been conflicting and inconclusive medical evidence of possible long-term health defects caused by the waste.

But there is hope. George Cooper, a legal consultant with Legal Aid in Cambodia (LAC), a non-governmental organization, says action is being taken to bring researchers from an unnamed US university to Sihanoukville to perform sophisticated testing on residents exposed to the waste.

"There's real serious culpability somewhere [for the toxic waste's importation]," Cooper said of LAC's continuing interest in the case. "But exactly where we don't yet know." If the proposed testing does indicate the existence of long-term illness from waste exposure, Cooper says LAC believes it will be possible to launch a civil compensation claim in a Taiwan court against the Formosa Plastics Group.

"We've checked with Taiwan to see whether we could sue on [proof of illness due to exposure], and the answer is yes," Cooper told the Taipei Times.

"But we still don't know if there's a case ... it depends on how far down the causation chain [in terms of death and damage caused by the dumping] Taiwan law allows us to go."

High Court Judge Tsai Jeong-duen, confirmed Cooper's contention, saying a civil lawsuit would stand in Taiwan -- as long as the affected Sihanoukville residents are able to prove their illnesses were actually caused by exposure to the waste dumped by the Formosa Plastics Group. But the sticking point comes in convincing the Taiwan court of the strength of the "causation chain" by providing firm evidence that associates the illnesses with being exposed to the waste. The onus of providing this proof lies without doubt on the residents, he said.

Tsai also said that in the case of a wrongful act in which the injured party is entitled to compensation, civil litigation can be based on the laws in the country where the incident occurred. However, to instigate a suit here, the alleged wrongdoing must also be considered unlawful in Taiwan. This would include personal injury and general property damage. Tsai said that regardless of what Cambodian law stipulates, the compensation sought against Formosa Plastics must fall within the scope of what is allowed by Taiwan law.

"It's not only about proof of damages. The most difficult part is that the victims have to prove the damage was caused by the waste. This is the most crucial factor if they have any hope of winning the case," Tsai said. -- Phelim Kyne, Chea Sotheacheath and Irene Lin

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