Formosa Plastics Group has filed a libel suit against an academic for releasing a study that warned if a major petrochemical project was to be launched in central Taiwan, the average life span of local residents will decrease by 44 days and 393 people will die of related diseases islandwide.
Formosa Plastics is one of the major players in the proposed Kuokuang Petrochemical Project that was scrapped after environmental groups staged strong protests in collaboration with local residents.
Tsuang Ben-jei, the professor at National Chung Hsing University's Environmental Engineering Department being sued, released a report last year saying 66 factories in Taichung and Yunlin County, including the Formosa group's sixth naphtha cracking plant, were found to have been emitting heavy metals and dioxins, a known human carcinogen.
A lawyer speaking for the business group said the NT$40 million lawsuit was aimed at "seeking the truth."
As many as 458 scholars and professors have signed a joint statement in support of Tsuang.
As this was the first ever lawsuit in Taiwan involving a conglomerate and a lone environmental researcher, major Taiwanese newspapers have given the issue prominent coverage. Following are excerpts of their reports:
Tsuang published a research paper after central Taiwan's Changhua County was selected as the location of the Kuokuang Petrochemical Project, warning that if the project were to be allowed and no efforts were made to reduce the emission of pollutants, dire consequences would follow.
The consequences include a reduction of 44 days in the average life span of all residents in Nantou and Chiayi counties, and an increase of 339 persons dying from related diseases each year across the island, the paper said.
Tsuang's paper played a critical role in the eventual rejection of the Kuokuang project.
Two companies affiliated with the Formosa Plastics Group filed a civil suit against Tsuang, claiming that he had damaged the group's reputation. They are seeking compensation of NT$40 million and a printed apology in four major newspapers.
The first hearing of the case is scheduled for May 3.
Tsuang's lawyer Chan Shun-kui said it is the first time in Taiwan that a business group has sued an academic.
Chan said if becomes a legal battle, it will create a "chilling effect" in the research community. He said academics will not dare to come up with "unfavorable" conclusions in the environmental assessment of the No. 6 naphtha cracker project in Mailiao and Hai Fong Industrial Zone in central Taiwan, a venture in which the Formosa group is investing US$15.6 billion.
Chan also lambasted the Cabinet's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) for calling an experts meeting on April 15, 2011, to put Tsuang on "public trial" and to lobby for the Kuokuang project.
But Environment Minister Shen Shu-hung said the methods by which a scholar cites his data and states his points should be open to public discussion.
It would not be fair if only green groups could go to court while business groups could not, Shen said. Resorting to the courts is one way of clearing up the facts, and a scholar must be held responsible for his studies, the minister said.
"If you have been doing research based on your conscience, why fear the so-called 'chilling effect'?" Shen asked.
The minister's remarks drew fire from Chan Chang-chuan, deputy dean of National Taiwan University's College of Public Health, who said Tsuang's research was not fabricated and had been published in internationally known journals.
"How can the EPA not stand on the side of an invited member of the environmental impact assessment committee but instead is on the side of evil?" Chan Chang-chuan said.
He said it is a shame that the EPA has created a scandal in international environmental protection circles. Chan vowed to appear in court, if asked, to give his expert views on the issue.
Chung Hsing University's Chief Secretary Chen Chung-chi said his school cannot accept a business group trying to "persecute academic freedom through the judicial system."
Chen reiterated the university's support for its faculty members' efforts to tell the public the truth by means of academic research.
Wu Yu-hsueh, a lawyer speaking for the business group, said it has always respected academic freedom and academic studies but it opposes "citing untruthful data to twist the facts in an attempt to damage the group's image and reputation."
"We are filing the lawsuit in order to find the truth," Wu said.
He said Formosa Plastics was "forced" to go to court after its repeated requests to Tsuang to explain the sources of his data elicited no response from the professor.
Wu said if his client wins the suit, it will donate the NT$40 million in compensation to cancer research.
Chou Chang-hung, an academician at Academia Sinica, the nation's highest research institute, said Formosa Plastics Group was trying to gag academic freedom.
Chou said he and others will hold a press conference Sunday to demand that the group withdraw its suit against Tsuang. (April 29, 2012)
Formosa Plastics Group is suing Tsuang for "aggravated libel" after the professor presented a research paper that showed some of the group's naphtha cracking plants in Mailiao were spewing pollutants that could increase the risk of cancer among residents in the area.
More than 500 academics, led by former Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tseh, have signed a statement, criticizing the business group as suppressing academic freedom in a bid to create fear in academia.
Wu Yu-hsueh, the group's lawyer, said Tsuang's research on the cancer risk was challenged in a meeting of experts convened last year by the EPA.
In his paper, Tsuang said Formosa Plastics had not reported the plants' emissions to Changhua County's environmental protection bureau, but in fact the company had, Wu said.
Last November, Tsuang cited EPA statistics that showed over 40 percent of the arsenic and cadmium -- two highly carcinogenic agents -- in central Taiwan was being emitted by the Formosa group's naphtha cracking plants.
"In our efforts to confirm that data, we found that that the EPA has no such statistics," Wu said.
Tsuang's lawyer Chan Shun-kui said the dispute is a case of academic freedom and should not be seen as a matter of "damaging a certain party's reputation."
In their joint statement, the academics said the No. 6 naphtha cracking project's impact on the environment has been "all too clear" and the plants' operations should be subject to "public comments."
But the business group's legal action seeking huge damages has "violated freedom of expression and academic freedom, both of which are protected by the Constitution," the academics said.
It urged Formosa Plastics to explain its case or conduct its own research to counter what it thinks is "unfair" in Tsuang's study, rather than trying to threaten academics. (April 29, 2012)
The United Daily News:
Academics and environmental groups were shocked by Formosa Plastics Group's libel suit against Tsuang, particularly its demand for NT$40 million in damages.
National Chengchi University's Professor Hsu Shih-jung and other scholars said they will speak out Sunday on Tsuang's behalf and will condemn the business group for acting like a bully in an attempt to muzzle all researchers.
The EPA, however, said Tsuang's research methods and results could be discussed. (April 29, 2012)
(By S.C. Chang)