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Taiwan court set to decide on libel case against scientist

Posted on behalf of Michele Catanzaro.

Ben-Jei Tsuang

Advocates of environmental engineer Ben-Jei Tsuang say that he is being unfairly targeted because of facts uncovered by his research.
COURTESY OF BEN-JEI TSUANG

A Taiwanese court will rule on 4 September in a libel lawsuit filed by a petrochemical company against an environmental engineer whose studies had suggested that a plant operated by the company was causing higher cancer rates in its vicinity.

In December 2010 Ben-Jei Tsuang, an environmental engineer at Taiwan’s National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, presented evidence of increased cancer rates in residents living near a Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) hydrocarbon-processing facility in Mailao, Taiwan, at a scientific meeting. He also presented evidence in a press conference in November 2011.

In April 2012, FPG sued Tsuang for defamation, demanding that he pay US$1.3 million in damages and that he publicly apologize by publishing a statement in four major newspapers.

In the trial, which had its final hearing today at the Taipei District Court, Tsuang’s lawyers framed the case as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. An open letter signed by 1,000 academics, including chemistry Nobel laureate Lee Yuan Tseh, expressed support for Tsuang.

“In the six previous hearings, FPG did not produce the emission inventory requested by the court. The judge remarked that this failure could affect the outcome of the case, so I am hopeful,” says Tsuang.

“However, the company has been successful in preventing scientists from speaking up,” he says. For example, he says that Taiwan’s Environmental Agency did not investigate press reports showing alleged evidence of widespread cancer in a village close to an FPG factory.

Whichever side the court’s ruling goes, it might not put an end to Tsuang’s case. Both he and FPG have the option to appeal it.

Several high-profile libel cases involving scientists and science journalists in the United Kingdom over the past few years have led to a campaign that resulted in a reform of UK libel laws (Nature supported the campaign). A bill to update the law was approved in April.

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    Jer-Ming Yang said:

    In 2009, Ethecon Foundation presented “Black Planet Award” to the management of the Formosa Plastics Group and, in particular, to its CEO, Mr. Lee Chih-tsuen, as well as to its founder and capital provider. While the same FPG claims that its petrochemical plants in the Mailao County of Taiwan do not pollute the surrounding communities, its petrochemical facility there continue making frequent uses of their exhaust flues designated only for emergent use. And this same FPG is still planning on expanding its facility in Mailao County. It is quite ironical is that even to date the Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for examining/approving the environmental/health risk impact assessment of all major industrial expansion projects, cannot even decide if the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) escaping from FPG’s Mailao Petrochemical Facility has exceeded the 4,302 ton limit set by a review board of Taiwan EPA many years ago. Based on many scientific reports officially submitted to the Taiwan Authority, a local environmental protection group has estimated that the actual VOCs amount exhausted from the FPG’s Mailao Facility is many times over that limit and has filed complaints to Taiwan EPA.

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