International Alliance Holds Hunger Strike, Seeks Justice for Victims of Formosa’s Industrial Pollution From Vietnam to Texas to Louisiana

On October 31, 75-year-old Diane Wilson, International Monitor Formosa Alliance (IMFA), and hundreds of people around the world launched a hunger strike in solidarity to demand that Formosa Plastics Group and its subsidiaries take action to adequately address the Ha Tinh steel plant’s 2016 industrial pollution disaster. As the environmental toll of industrial pollution globally grows with the size of polluting industries including Formosa Plastics Group, more communities are suffering from the ecological, health, and social injustices of being targeted for polluting infrastructure and activities. 

IMFA co-founder Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimp boat captain who has spent more than 30 years documenting Formosa Plastics Group’s pollution, led the hunger strike in front of Gate 3 of the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, throughout November. IMFA is an international alliance representing human rights, peace, justice, environmental, and commercial fishing organizations that seeks justice for victims of Formosa’s industrial pollution in Vietnam—and beyond. Following the 30-day strike, the 24/7 encampment inspired by Wilson’s leadership continues to be occupied indefinitely in the same spot by activists calling for change. IMFA was established last year by Wilson of San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, with Nancy Bui of Justice for Formosa Victims, and Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James, largely to rally behind Vietnamese fisherpeople’s quest for justice.

Formosa Plastics Group is a Taiwan-founded industrial conglomerate currently operating in eight countries and nearly 100 companies, including many heavy industries such as petrochemicals, plastics, and steel. In 2016, the company discharged toxic waste from its steelworks at Ha Tinh, Vietnam, into local waterways. This disaster killed huge numbers of fish and other marine animals, hurting the local environment impacting more than four million people living across four different provinces of Vietnam. It decimated the livelihoods of more than 179,000 fisherpeople in the region. Formosa even publicly admitted it caused the pollution after scientists revealed the pollution.

As a result of its pollution being brought to light, Formosa pledged to pay $500 million to the Vietnamese government to pay out those impacted—but how it came up with that figure was unclear. What’s more, due to legal loopholes and government collusion, tens of thousands of people received no payment and others received compensation that did not match their losses. More than 7,000 Vietnamese fisherpeople have received no cleanup or compensation from the company, causing elevated rates of unemployment and poverty. Lawsuits calling for action have been dismissed. Those who have called for an independent investigation, oversight, and transparency have been intimidated and harmed, and currently, 24 people remain imprisoned.

Hunger Strike for Justice in Vietnam

Diane Wilson, surrounded by supporters from Houston, TX, and Lake Charles, LA, communities, in front of Formosa Plastics at Point Comfort during her hunger strike kickoff event on October 31, 2023. Photo by IMFA
Diane Wilson, surrounded by supporters from Houston, TX, and Lake Charles, LA, communities, in front of Formosa Plastics at Point Comfort during her hunger strike kickoff event on October 31, 2023. Photo by IMFA

During the hunger strike, which ended on November 30, participants and supporters underscored their demands that Formosa Plastics Group and its subsidiaries take action to adequately address the Ha Tinh disaster, including to

  1. Provide equitable and fair compensation directly to the victims.
  2. Commission an independent inquiry to confirm the cessation of pollution, cleanup of the impacted environment, and restoration of the livelihoods and communities of those affected.
  3. Advocate for the immediate release of all political prisoners associated with the cause.
  4. Cooperate fully with any investigations into Formosa Plastics Group and subsidiaries.

These demands are outlined in an organizational sign-on letter representing more than 7.5 million people that Diane and fellow activists have been hand-delivering to Formosa Plastics daily, which includes the support of major national and international groups, including Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth US, the Center for International Environment Law, EarthDay.org, Break Free From Plastic, and many more, including Plastic Pollution Coalition. Company officials have acknowledged receipt of the letter, but there has yet to be any other response. 

Read IMFA co-founder Nancy Bui’s recent letter to Formosa Plastics Group here.

On the 30th day of the hunger strike, Diane Wilson and Nancy Bùi entered the administration office to deliver a 6-point demand letter to Michael River, the Manager of the Formosa Plant at Point Comfort, urging him to forward the letter to the Chairman of Formosa Plastics Group in Taiwan. Photo by IMFA
On the 30th day of the hunger strike, Diane Wilson and Nancy Bùi entered the administration office to deliver a 6-point demand letter to Mike Rivet, Executive Director of Formosa Plastics, TX, at its Point Comfort plant, urging him to forward the letter to the Chairman of Formosa Plastics Group in Taiwan. Photo by IMFA

Following the hunger strike, IMFA’s demands remain unchanged. Activists are calling the latest stage of their campaign #OccupyFormosaPlastics as an encampment is maintained at Formosa’s Point Comfort, Texas, petrochemical and plastics factory. Wilson and other activists have pressed for accountability in Texas, too, where Formosa has faced numerous costly penalties for its pollution, particularly of microplastics, as well as serious explosions, fires, and toxic chemical releases into waterways.

IMFA is a “Vital Alliance”

Father Peter Nguyen Văn Hùng and a group of Vietnamese labor workers in Taiwan protesting to express their support for Diane's hunger strike. Photo by IMFA
Father Peter Nguyen Văn Hùng and a group of Vietnamese labor workers in Taiwan protesting to express their support for the hunger strike. Photo by IMFA

IMFA works to amplify the voices of people facing corporate negligence in Vietnam, Texas, and everywhere else Formosa Plastics Group and other industries have caused serious environmental, health, and human rights issues due to their pollution and practices. The group was formed in 2022 by a leading group of activists facing Formosa in their local communities. 

In March 2019, Nancy Bui of Justice for Formosa Victims brought together a coalition of Vietnamese Americans who traveled to Point Comfort, Texas, to support the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper and Diane Wilson in their lawsuit against Formosa Plastics, Texas, and Formosa Plastics, USA. Later that year, Formosa would pay $50 million, the largest settlement ever won in a Clean Water Act suit filed by an individual, for pollution monitoring and prevention. Bui and Wilson’s collaboration also came about as Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James worked with her community to stop Formosa’s proposed 2,400-acre, $12-billion plastic factory called the “Sunshine Project.” 

Brought together by their activism, Bui, Wilson, and Lavigne advocate for people all over the world who are harmed and threatened by Formosa’s industrial businesses. The company has been accused or found guilty of polluting in every country in which it operates. Unfortunately, Formosa is one of many industrial corporations polluting the planet and, particularly in the most systemically oppressed and underserved communities—particularly those that are rural, poor, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). 

Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop and two priests from the Formosa disaster-affected area protested in front of Formosa Steel Ha Tinh, the site of the 2016 environmental disaster, to show solidarity with the hunger strike. Photo by IMFA
Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop and two priests from the Formosa disaster-affected area protested in front of Formosa Steel Ha Tinh, the site of the 2016 environmental disaster, to show solidarity with the hunger strike. Photo by IMFA

Take Action 

Formosa Plastics is responsible for devastation across the world. In Texas, they illegally released billions of plastic pellets into waterways for years. In Louisiana, they’re trying to build a giant plastics complex in an area so polluted that it’s nicknamed Cancer Alley. And in 2016, a Formosa plant’s toxic release ruined the livelihoods of MILLIONS of people in Vietnam. IMFA and frontline communities need your help to call on Formosa to take responsibility, provide compensation for victims, support the release of prisoners, and clean up its act in Vietnam and beyond. 

Support those speaking out at the front lines at the encampment in Point Comfort. Donate to the encampment here

Sharon Lavigne and RISE St. James have worked for years to block Formosa Plastics from constructing a gigantic plastics factory in Welcome, a small town with a predominantly Black population in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Thanks to RISE’s advocacy, legal actions, community-building efforts, and speaking truth to power, the community has now successfully—and permanently—fended off Formosa’s nearly 2,500 acre, $9.4 billion plastics factory.

The news came last week when Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court reversed the state’s  previous decision to issue Formosa the air pollution permits needed to proceed with construction and ultimately operation. With the permits, Formosa’s plastics factory would have tripled cancer-causing air pollution in the region, spewing out more than 800 tons of toxic air pollution annually. Now Formosa must leave St. James Parish, or attempt to start the process of building a plastics factory in St. James from square one, which is unlikely due to the steep price.

Sharon Lavigne in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Photo by Erica Cirino

Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath. The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.

Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of RISE St. James

In St. James Parish, as in many other parishes along the southern banks of the MIssissippi River, heavy industry—particularly relating to petrochemical and plastics—is overtaking the rural landscape. St. James alone is already overburdened by 12 polluting facilities. Like all plastic-manufacturing plants, Formosa’s proposed plant would have polluted the air, land, water, plants, animals, and people; it would also have added to the serious injustices and health disparities that the people of color who live in this parish have been subjected to face. It would have released significant amounts of climate-warming gases; a serious concern, especially in a region so often hard-hit by serious storms. 

The court’s decision on Formosa builds upon another recent victory in the community, with the news that South Louisiana Methanol was effectively ousted from St. James when the Parish Council voted to reject the company’s appeal to build a factory in a residential area. For more than a decade, Lavigne and her community have worked to block these kinds of industrial developments in St. James Parish. In 2018, Lavigne, a retired teacher, dedicated herself full-time to the cause of addressing environmental injustice in her community: She joined her neighbors to form RISE St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization.

Formosa is only one of many major petrochemical and plastic companies that have attempted to set up shop in St. James in recent years. It’s now just become the latest to have been pushed out as a result of RISE’s local efforts. People living in St. James and other communities affected by injustice and pollution spend much time active in community meetings and hearings, sharing testimony, gathering documentation of pollution, and much more to keep polluters at bay. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a problem that could be better addressed if we acted proactively instead of reactively.

Communities should not be fighting for their lives, but they are forced to due to systemic injustice. Justice cannot be served until we choose to protect rather than subject communities of color and other underserved groups to dangerous and dirty industrial development and activities.

Erica Cirino, Plastic Pollution Coalition Communications Manager
Petrochemical landscape in southern Louisiana. Photo by Erica Cirino

Plastic Helps Fuel Environmental Injustice

In recent years, environmental injustice has increasingly been recognized as a core component of the issue of plastic pollution disproportionately impacting Black, Brown, and Indigenous (BIPOC), and rural and low-income communities. These systemic injustices are built into government policies, society, and our economy. There is a strong connection between environmental and social injustice, racism, and classism and exposure to air pollution caused by waste incineration, landfills and illegal dumps; industrial water and soil contamination; heightened risk of accidents and explosions; and myriad other environmental injustices in the U.S. and globally.

There is no plastic production that is aligned with the right to a healthy environment.

Jane Patton, Louisiana resident and Campaign Manager, Plastics & Petrochemicals, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

For communities facing environmental injustice, Sharon Lavigne has this advice to offer:

First of all, believe in God and believe in yourself. Stand up and fight for your rights and the rights of your community and never give up. Make noise! If your local politicians are not helping you and your community, replace them! Get them out of office and put people in place who care about you and your community.

Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James

Plastic Pollution Coalition recognizes that social and environmental justice are all part of a single, globally connected Movement for Justice. Vulnerable communities like St. James deserve protection and respect. Every unjust industrial development that is stopped, like the Formosa facility in St. James Parish, is one less polluting project that could potentially harm people and the environment.

Unfortunately, concessions attached to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act may soon be advanced, and these could fast-track numerous coal, crude oil, and gas development projects across the country. Just today, the executive directors of 13 climate and environmental justice organizations risked arrest at the Capitol to denounce Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer’s “dirty deal” to fast-track fossil fuel project approvals. Manchin yesterday released the text of his deal, which was written by and for the fossil fuel industry. 

You can help prevent more frontline communities from being threatened by plastics and petrochemical expansion in the United States by signing a petition against this “dirty deal.” Take and help amplify this action at a key moment when Congress must decide whether or not to decide to stop the deal from moving forward.

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Agreement is the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals

VICTORIA, Texas (Oct. 15, 2019) – Petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics Corp. has agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit over federal Clean Water Act violations brought by Texas residents. The agreement is the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals. The company – whose Point Comfort, Texas plant has discharged billions of plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek – also agreed to comply with future “zero discharge” of all plastics and clean up existing pollution.

This record financial settlement will fund environmental mitigation in the region around the Point Comfort facility in Calhoun County. It is five times the previous largest settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals. (Public Interest Research Group of N.J. v. Witco Chemical Corp., Nos. 89-3146, C-359–83 (D.N.J. Jan. 15, 1993). The largest Clean Air Act suit brought by private individuals awarded $19.95 million. (Environment Texas & Sierra Club v. ExxonMobil, S.D. Tex. 2017)).

In no other case have private individuals collected as much evidence to prove illegal discharges. 

“The years of fighting to protect the natural resources of the Lavaca Bay-Cox Creek area have finally paid off,” said Diane Wilson, a former shrimper and a plaintiff in the suit, along with members of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “It’s a huge victory for the environment – and for the people who love and depend upon it. We look forward to working with Formosa to restore the health of our environment and make sure it stays pristine.” 

“A settlement of this size sends a powerful message to corporate polluters – there’s a steep price to pay for flagrant, chronic violations of laws that protect our environment,” said Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) attorney Erin Gaines, who represents Wilson. Gaines added, “And with plastics pollution of our oceans at a crisis, the message comes at a vital time.” 

The settlement, proposed by the plaintiffs and Formosa, must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, who already ruled for the plaintiffs after hearing the liability phase of the case.  

None of the $50 million settlement will be awarded to the plaintiffs.

The settlement funds will be paid out over five years into a fund that will support projects that reverse the damage of water pollution in Texas’s Calhoun County. Some of those projects include:

$20 million for creating a cooperative that will revitalize depleted marine ecosystems and develop sustainable fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting.$10 million for environmental development of Green Lake park, the 2ndlargest natural lake in Texas, into an environmentally sound public park. $2 million to control erosion and restore beaches at Magnolia Beach. $5 million for environmental research of San Antonio and Matagorda bay systems and river deltas that feed into them. $1 million to support the “Nurdle Patrols” at the University of Texas’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, and to give scholarships to allow persons throughout the Gulf coast to attend Nurdle Patrol conferences. The brainchild of the Reserve’s director Jace Tunnell, the Nurdle Patrols are volunteer groups that collect plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, in order to document and research plastic pollution of the Gulf and its shores. $750,000 to the YMCA for camps for children to study and learn how to be good stewards of the local marine environment.

“This case is a shining example of the crucial role that citizen enforcement suits play in seeing that our cornerstone environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, actually fulfill their purpose of protecting our environment and public health,” said Josh Kratka, senior attorney at the National Environmental Law Center. “When state agencies and the U.S. EPA fail to secure compliance, private citizens and environmental groups must have the ability to step in to ensure polluters are held accountable.”

The settlement details how and when Formosa will make improvements to its plant to eliminate the discharge of plastic pellets. Plaintiffs will be allowed to review decisions and make objections throughout the process – from the hiring of an engineer to design the improvements, to the monitoring of Formosa to achieve zero discharge. If Formosa is found to be in violation again, it will pay for every documented discharge back into the settlement fund. Payments will start at $10,000 per discharge this year and increase in annual increments to over $54,000 per discharge. 

“Through reporting requirements, an independent monitor, site visits, and other accountability requirements, we will have access to the process to determine whether Formosa is living up to its side of the bargain,” said Bob Lindsey, a plaintiff and member of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “We will have the power to make sure Formosa fulfills its promises.”

Amy Johnson, an attorney for TRLA who also represents Wilson, said, “Since at least 2000, Formosa’s Port Comfort facility has discharged plastic pellets and powder into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek. “Our engineers were key in documenting that plastic pollution would continue unabated unless dramatic changes were made to the plant. We will now work with Formosa to make sure those improvements are made, and the discharges are stopped.” (TRLA attorney Jennifer Richards also worked on the case.)

In July 2017, Wilson and the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper members – represented by private co-counsels David Bright of Corpus Christi and David Frederick of Austin – filed suitagainst Formosa Plastics Corp., Texas and Formosa Plastics Corp., USA. 

Collecting their own evidence, they patrolled Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek on an almost daily basis for nearly four years, picking up samples of Formosa’s discharges. In total, they collected 2,428 samples of pellets and plastic powders and stored them in zip-lock bags and bottles marked with dates, times, and locations. They also took thousands of photos and videos of plastic pellets in the water and along shores. Packing the samples into boxes, they took them to the courthouse in downtown Victoria, where they presented them as evidence during the liability phase of the trial earlier this year. 

In his ruling for the plaintiffs, Judge Hoyt wrote, “these witnesses provided detailed, credible testimony… .” He described Formosa as a “serial offender” and wrote that its violations of the Clean Water Act were “extensive, historical, and repetitive.”

For the trial, Jeremy Conkle, an assistant prof
essor of environmental chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, provided an estimate of the quantity of pellets that Formosa discharged. For the past few years, Formosa has been both discharging plastic pellets and trying to clean them up. As such, Conkle was able to estimate how many had been spilled by finding out from cleanup crews how many had been collected. From April 2017 through February 2019, the crews removed between 341,000 and 3.4 million pounds of plastic debris, which equals 7.6 billion to 75 billion individual pellets, according to Conkle’s calculations. (See Addendum

“It’s great news that Formosa Plastics is finally being held accountable for polluting Texas waterways with plastic pellets,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The zero plastic discharge requirement this settlement won should be the standard for all plastic plants across the country.”

Photo: Plaintiffs David Sumpter, Diane Wilson, Bob Lindsey, and Ronnie Hamrick.

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