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Victims of Formosa spill in Vietnam seek compensation

[TAIPEI] Lawyers in Taiwan launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the industrial conglomerate Formosa on Tuesday, on behalf of thousands of Vietnamese whose livelihoods were ruined by a toxic spill that devastated fish stocks.

Formosa's huge steel plant in Ha Tinh province was fined US$500 million by the Vietnamese government in 2016 for pouring chemicals - including cyanide - into the ocean, sparking one of the country's worst environmental catastrophes.

The spill devastated fishing communities along swathes of coastline and prompted months of rare protests in the one-party state.

Dozens of local and Vietnamese activists rallied outside the district court in Taipei this week as lawyers lodged their claim.

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"I saw with my own eyes dead fish floating in the sea. There are no fish in the ocean to catch now... we are forced to leave our home to go to other countries to find work," said Nguyen, a former fisherman who asked to be identified only by his family name.

"I hope Taiwan's independent judiciary will seriously handle the case to return justice to the victims and I hope Formosa will give Vietnam back a clean ocean so the fish will return," he added.

Some 7,875 people from the affected areas have joined the group lawsuit initially seeking at least Tw$140 million (S$6.08 million) in compensation, according to Taiwan's Environmental Rights Foundation which is assisting the victims.

They also hope that the lawsuit will help shed some light into how the US$500 million fine has been used to clean up the environment, due to a lack of information in authoritarian Vietnam.

Activists said even though the pollution occurred in Vietnam, Taiwan's court has the jurisdiction because the defendants - board members and major shareholders of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation - are mostly Taiwanese.

"This is the first case filed against a Taiwanese company for causing massive environmental impact abroad. We hope the court will take the challenge to handle the case and set a good precedent," said Tu Yu-wen, head of the foundation.

The company said in a statement it paid US$500 million to compensate fishermen in August 2016, to be distributed by the Vietnamese government.

But activists said only "some people" got around Tw$20,000 in compensation and that the Vietnamese government has jailed people who demanded greater compensation.

The toxic spill set off angry demonstrations against the company and several activists were arrested and convicted for their involvement in the protests.

Formosa's US$11-billion steel plant, which was under construction at the time of the disaster, was given the green light to resume operations in April 2017 after officials found it had addressed dozens of violations.

However, the company was fined for a second time - an additional US$25,000 - in December 2017 for illegally burying "harmful" solid waste in the ground the year before.

AFP