The early days of April 2016 marked the beginning of a grave environmental disaster that would result in the deaths of two Vietnamese, long-lasting health issues for others, and the loss of several hundreds of tons of marine life.
A waste discharge pipe owned by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a subsidiary of the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group, was discovered by Nguyen Xuan Thanh, a fisherman from Ba Dong Hamlet, Ky Anh District. This pipe, connected to Formosa’s project site in the Vung Ang Economic Zone, was constantly spewing toxic yellow liquid directly into Vietnam waters.
The incident sparked a massive outrage around the country and prompted Vietnamese citizens to protest in several major cities and express their dissatisfaction on social media. Much to no one’s surprise, the Vietnamese government responded to these actions with intimidation, arrests, and violence.
On June 30, 2016, Formosa Ha Tinh finally admitted its wrongdoing and accepted responsibility for the disaster it had caused. The company paid US$500 million in reparations to the Vietnamese government and those affected by the incident.
However, many of the victims have not received any form of compensation while those who were fortunate enough to be given anything at all were reported only to have received as little as US$765. Vietnam’s actions against several activists who spoke out against Formosa continued despite the company’s admission of guilt, with some people being imprisoned two years later. And in 2017, Formosa was allowed to resume its operations.
Worldwide Cases of Environmental Abuse
The April 2016 environmental disaster and Formosa’s continued presence in Vietnam are just two of several other controversies that hound this conglomerate. Their activities in Cambodia, Taiwan, and the United States have been documented by the Center for International and Environmental Law (CIEL). This organization works for the protection of the environment and the promotion of human rights for a just and sustainable society.
CIEL reports that in November 1998, the Formosa Plastics Corporation, a subsidiary of the Formosa Plastics Group, cemented and packaged 3000 tons of toxic waste in plastic bags and dumped them in a field in coastal Sihanoukville in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government alleged that the Formosa Plastics Corporation was “unable to dump the waste locally due to resistance from surrounding communities.” So it was forced to export it out of Taiwan and “to have bribed officials to allow the toxic shipment to be offloaded in Cambodia.” These bags were unlabelled and when people from the surrounding area began to inspect them for anything they might be able to use, they were exposed to highly toxic levels of mercury. By mid-December, several people in the area had begun to show symptoms of fever, vomiting, headaches, and diarrhea. It led to the inevitable spread of mass hysteria and to the evacuation of hundreds of local residents from Sihanoukville.
In response to this incident, Formosa Plastic “maintained that the waste had been treated and was not toxic” even though the tests conducted by government agencies in four different countries argued otherwise; these agencies revealed that “the illegally dumped waste was leaching levels of mercury up to four times higher than Taiwan’s’s Environmental Protection Administration deemed safe.”
Formosa Plastics was eventually forced to remove their toxic waste, and more than two dozen local Cambodian officials were suspended or punished by the Cambodian national government. However, no one associated with the Formosa Plastics Corporation was jailed or fined, and the company has not compensated any of the families affected by their actions.
Formosa Plastics Group also faces pushback and scrutiny in its home country, Taiwan, despite being one of its “largest private enterprises.”
The CIEL report details several incidents surrounding Formosa’s complex in Yunlin County, located in Western Taiwan. Formosa’s activities and construction in this area, which takes up more than 6,000 acres of land and includes “more than 50 plants, including crackers, oil refineries, chemicals, plastics, resins, textile manufacturers, and power plants,” continues despite rising concerns about safety and pollution.
Likewise, scientists who were studying the effects of this complex on the local area have “attributed thousands of cancer cases and nearly 1,000 deaths per year to exposure from the petrochemical complex.”
CIEL’s report highlights an incident that occurred in April 2019 in which a natural gas leak inside Formosa’s complex “caused a powerful explosion that forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate,” which also “led to the deaths of livestock and nearby fisheries.” Even though the company was compelled to pay a US$162,000 fine for that incident, Formosa Plastics Group continues to produce crack naphtha and highly volatile plastics and fibers in that area.
3. The United States of America
Several places in the US have also experienced untoward incidents involving Formosa’s manufacturing plants. CIEL’s report discusses incidents that occurred in Illiopolis, Delaware, Baton Rouge, and Point Comfort.
In April 2004, an explosion occurred in a Formosa Plastics PVC production plant in Illiopolis, Illinois, which resulted in the deaths of five people and the severe injuring of another three. Nearby neighborhoods also had to be evacuated for their safety.
An investigation by federal authorities in 2007 held that Formosa had “significant responsibility” for the explosion due to structural problems which the company’s managers and engineers ignored.
The investigators also noted that “there were ten safety guidelines, staff lacked training, and more than ten years had passed since the last large release emergency drill.” Formosa only paid a $300,000 settlement for its negligence and promised to uphold other health and safety measures. However, these were never implemented as Formosa shut down this location immediately after this incident.
The Formosa Plastics Plant in Delaware shut down in 2018. However, during the period it remained in operation, CIEL reports that “the facility had a three-decade-long record of releasing toxic and carcinogenic emissions into the surrounding area.”
Furthermore, it states that before the plant shut down, “the Delaware City Formosa Plastics plant was the third-largest emitter of toxins in the state [and released] more than 34,000 pounds of vinyl acetate and nearly 46,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the air.”
Even though the groundwater beneath the plant was already contaminated beforehand, Formosa continued to neglect it resulting in the “ongoing contamination of residential water supplies.”
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there is a high concentration of ethylene dichloride in the local wells, which are part of the city’s water supply. This chemical is used to manufacture PVC, which the local Formosa Plant in the area has been producing since 1981.
The Louisiana government’s efforts to eliminate or limit Formosa’s impact on the environment have been mostly ineffective; despite sanctioning the company with fines amounting to millions of dollars, Formosa’s operations in the area have only intensified.
The report claims that since 2016, “the facility has produced an average of nearly 2.5 million pounds of ethylene dichloride and an additional nearly 2.5 million pounds of 1,1,2-trichloroethane, among other chemicals, per year.”
In 1983, Formosa opened a production plant in Point Comfort, Texas, By 1989, this factory “had contributed to the area becoming one of the worst in the country for toxic releases on land,” and Formosa’s presence in the area has only grown since then. Currently, the facility encompasses 17 different operating units on 1,800 acres of land and water and “releases nine million gallons of wastewater into [the] nearby Lavaca Bay every day.”
Similar to what happened in Formosa’s Taiwan complex and inIlliopolis, an explosion occurred in the Point Comfort site in 2005 when a forklift operator “accidentally ripped lose a small valve in the polypropylene piping system.”
The resulting firestorm injured 16 workers and led to the temporary shutdown of the affected facility for around six months. An investigation of this incident by the US government revealed that “Formosa Plastics had failed to account for potential vehicle impacts on the site and did not adequately protect its workers with flame retardant clothing.”
The CIEL report also mentions that in 2009, billions of tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles” were found in the water of Lavaca Bay by Diane Wilson, a local fisherwoman and lead organizer against Formosa’s continued expansion in the area. These pellets are toxic and harmful to fish, animals, and humans; fish and other animals can mistake these pellets for food, and if humans eat any creature that has ingested these nurdles, they run the risk of being poisoned.
Local community leaders forwarded these issues to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Texas authorities, but their pleas were ignored. In 2018, the community leaders filed a “citizen’s lawsuit” in federal court against Formosa.
The presiding judge ruled in favor of the people and called Formosa a “serial offender” while chastising Texas authorities for their inaction. Formosa agreed to a settlement of US$50 million, the largest ever sum in a Clean Water Act case. However, the report goes on to say that since January 2020, plastic pollutants and nurdles can still be found in Lavaca Bay “on an almost daily basis.”
Formosa’s Disregard of Human Rights
From their actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, and the United States, it is apparent that the preservation and protection of the environment is not a priority of the Formosa Plastics Group. If the company can get away with committing atrocities against nature, it will do it. However, this is far from the company’s only shortcoming. The CIEL study has also compiled several repeated instances of the Formosa Plastics Group’s violation of human rights.
Formosa’s presence in Vietnam, Taiwan, and Cambodia shows blatant disregard of the rights of Freedom of Expression and Freedom from Arbitrary Detention and Torture. As mentioned earlier, several activists, bloggers, journalists, and protesters in Vietnam who aired out their grievances against Formosa through “multi-day protests, hunger strikes, and demonstrations” faced an “aggressive crackdown” from state authorities.
Many were arrested, beaten, placed under surveillance, tortured, or forced to give confessions under the threat of harm. CIEL’s report states that although the international community has condemned these atrocities, many victims remain incarcerated to this day.
And while it can be argued that it is the Vietnamese government committing these violations and not the Formosa Plastics Group itself, it is quite likely that some degree of collusion is happening between both parties. Especially, when we consider the fact that the Vietnamese government tried to stop DPP legislator Su Chih-feng from investigating the fish death incident, the collaboration seems much more likely.
In its home country of Taiwan, Formosa Plastics has actively tried to quell dissent. In 2012, it filed civil and criminal complaints against a Taiwanese scientist who managed to establish a link between the toxic emissions from Formosa’s complex and the increased cancer risk for nearby communities. Even though Formosa lost this case, its actions “had a chilling effect on the scientific community” in Taiwan.
Activists in Cambodia who protested Formosa’s illegal dumping of toxic materials in Sihanoukville were “reportedly arrested without a warrant, jailed for a month, and subjected to physical abuse in custody.”
The Formosa managers who were allegedly responsible for the dumping faced no consequences. It is also important to note that when the company began to be suspected of bribing local Cambodian officials, according to the CIEL report, Formosa tried to blame Taiwanese activists who had opposed the waste being dumped in a local landfill.
The Formosa Plastics Group also actively hinders Access to Information regarding the risk involved with many of the products they produce. As a business, the company has “obligations to ensure communities’ access to information, especially related to the risks posed by toxic chemicals.”
The report also states that after the marine disaster occurred in Vietnam, “there was a lack of transparency regarding its causes and potential health risks, as authorities reportedly withheld or delayed the release of information.”
Formosa’s numerous environmental issues negatively impact the natural world and deny people their Rights to a Healthy Environment, a Dignified Life, and Health. The various toxins that its factories produce have led to the destruction of local communities, as seen in the incident that occurred in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and to the health of fenceline communities and their own workers being placed at risk. Formosa’s chemical waste also jeopardizes access to safe water, food, and housing which are essential needs of every human being.
The location of Formosa’s many factories also tends to be located near vulnerable populations such as communities of indigenous peoples, ethnic, racial, or religious minorities, and low-income people.
As such, the rights of these peoples to Freedom from Discrimination are not being respected. The CIEL report cites international law, which “bars practices that have a disparate impact based on race, not just those that reflect discriminatory intent, including ‘environmental harm that results from or contributes to discrimination.’” Hence, Formosa has to comply with international law.
Lastly, many of the victims of Formosa’s misdeeds have received little or no compensation for the harm caused to them. Their Right to Remedy remains unfulfilled.
In Vietnam, even though Formosa admitted responsibility in Vietnam, the compensation has not benefited the thousands of people affected. In Taiwan and the US, Formosa was still permitted to expand its facilities even though its activities continue to negatively affect the environment and the local population where its plants are built. CIEL states that an adequate remedy to all of Formasa’s deeds requires:
(a) cessation of its dangerous industrial practices;
(b) full disclosure of the risks posed by the company’s operations, as well as mitigation, management, and emergency response plans;
(c) complete assessment of the costs — both direct and indirect — of past accidents and contamination events; and
(d) cleanup of pollution that continues to threaten waterways, soil, air, and health.
The Corporate Mafia
The actions of the Formosa Plastics Group and its subsidiaries exhibit a blatant disregard for the environment and show a callous lack of concern for the welfare of the people the company harms through its actions, its workers, and the activists and concerned citizens who only want to safeguard human rights. As such, the Formosa conglomerate has to be sanctioned appropriately and subdued to limit any further damage it might cause.
CIEL ends its report by offering three recommendations that need to be taken to deal with the Formosa problem. These can be summarized as follows:
- Prevent the Formosa Plastics Group from inflicting more harm on people or the environment through stricter government enforcement of environmental, health, and safety standards. Decisive action, such as the closure or suspension of company operations, should also be taken if Formosa commits repeat violations.
- Hold the Formosa Plastics Group accountable for the harm it has already caused. The governments of the countries affected by Formosa’s actions should ensure that adequate remedies are provided to all people who have suffered because of Formosa. Specifically for Vietnam, all detained environmental protesters and protectors should be released.
- Protect against similar harm to people and the environment occurring throughout the petrochemicals and plastics production supply chain. Governments worldwide should pass new legislation that will ban the construction of new plastic plants, cease providing tax benefits and other incentives to petrochemical companies, and implement new standards before giving permission to companies to build new facilities. Private investors should also stop providing funding to petrochemical factories, while banks and other financial institutions should exclude petrochemicals and plastics from their portfolios.
However, there is very little chance that any of these recommendations will be implemented.
The Formosa Plastics Group has been around for almost 60 years, and throughout its existence, the company has always shown that it hardly cares about regulations. It uses underhanded methods to coerce people into silence and to bribe governments to skirt the law. The company is not above taking private citizens to court if it means that its business will go undisturbed.
Formosa willingly disposes toxic waste near communities of people with barely a second thought given to how this may affect their long and short-term health. As a private business entity, it has both an obligation and a duty to “respect, protect, and fulfill the basic rights and freedoms inherent to all human beings.” Yet, the path the company has chosen is neither ethical nor respectable; it chooses to portray itself like a gang that cares little for who it has to step on for the sake of higher profits.
And since Formosa only seems to care about money, perhaps the solution lies there at Formosa’s bottom line, for it seems that nothing else but dwindling profits will make the company change its ways. But until the day when an actionable and effective solution is discovered, we will not stop badgering Formosa to clean up its practices.
- Trang, D. (2017, November 8). Timeline: The Formosa Environmental Disaster. The Vietnamese. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2017/11/timeline-the-formosa-environmental-disaster/.
- BBC. (2016, May 1). Vietnam protest over Mystery Fish deaths. BBC News. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36181575.
- The Formosa Environmental Disaster in Vietnam. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2021, from http://www.universal-rights.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Viet-Nam.pdf.
- Nguyen, M. (2016, June 30). Formosa unit offers $500 million for causing toxic disaster in Vietnam. Reuters. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-environment-idUSKCN0ZG1F5.
- Patton, J., & Reisch, N. et al. (n.d.). Formosa Plastics Group: A SERIAL OFFENDER OF ENVIRONMENTAL AND HUMAN RIGHTS A CASE STUDY. Center for International and Environmental Law. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Formosa-Plastics-Group_A-Serial-Offender-of-Environmental-and-Human-Rights.pdf.
- Quynh-Vi, T. (2018, April 24). Two years later, Formosa toxic pollution still sends people to prison in Vietnam. The Vietnamese. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2018/04/formosa-toxic-pollution-still-sends-people-to-prison-in-vietnam/.
- Nguyen, M. (2017, May 29). Formosa Steel Plant in Vietnam restarts after toxic spill. Reuters. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-environment-formosa-plastics-idUSKBN18P186
- Wel-han, C. (2016, August 4). Hanoi silent on treatment: DPP's Su Chih-Feng. Taipei Times. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2016/08/05/2003652486.
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