Residents sue Formosa for polluting bays

White lentil-sized plastic pellets can be seen floating in Cox’s Creek in 2016 just across the road from Formosa’s gates.

Although the state will soon seek the public’s comment about an agreement it reached with Formosa regarding releasing plastic pellets, some wonder what good it will do.

They say the state has tied their hands from reporting the company for continuing to release pellets into the surrounding waters.

Beginning Friday, the public can comment about Formosa paying a $121,875 fine to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for pellets the company released into Cox Creek.

Diane Wilson, who is leading a lawsuit against the company about the pellets, said the TCEQ found those pellets during a record check April 4, 2017, but the public has sent it reams of evidence it has never acted on.

“We have over 2,000 samples showing Clean Water Act violations. We’ve been collecting them for 2½ years, and we’ve not only collected them, we have videoed it, we have photographed it and probably sent the state 15 to 20 complaints about this, yet it has only fined Formosa for one day of the discharging pellets,” Wilson said, adding that her lawsuit against Formosa should go to trial in February 2019.

And when the TCEQ found Formosa was releasing pellets in 2016, it did not fine the company.

Formosa spokesman Steve Marwitz said the company agreed to go ahead and pay its fine so it could focus on preventing pellets from being released.

In January, Myron Spree joined the list of people who have complained about the pellets. He recorded himself on video filling up a bottle of water with pellets while fishing in the bay near one of Formosa’s outfalls. He took the bottle and the recording, which showed his longitude and latitude, to the TCEQ’s regional office in Corpus Christi.

Last week, the TCEQ said it couldn’t substantiate his complaints.

This confused Spree because TCEQ told him it had taken its own samples when it visited about the same time, and those samples had contained pellets.

Also, TCEQ told him he wasn’t trained to take samples, so they couldn’t use them, but the lawyers representing Wilson were eager to get their hands on the samples.

He wondered how an everyday citizen could successfully report environmental crimes without being discouraged.

“I can understand the need to be strict so you don’t have people making stuff up, but that’s the question. That’s the question I’ve been asking,” Spree said.

Spree said he also complained to the Environmental Protection Agency, which just referred him back to the TCEQ.

Eventually, he gave Wilson’s lawyers the information he had.

“I wasn’t going to get involved in the lawsuit, but they have forced my hand,” he said.

TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said Spree’s complaints were not substantiated because the stormwater outfalls were not discharging when the TCEQ was there in January and it did not observe plastic pellets in them.

She said everyday citizens can help the TCEQ enforce environmental laws by submitting samples, but they must follow agency protocols. She pointed to a webpage that she said detailed those protocols.

The webpage said the TCEQ did not have a comprehensive list of protocols for collecting samples, though, and that in some cases, they’ll only accept the samples if the person who collected them has received training. It’s not clear what type of training is required. The webpage said the protocols and training depend on the type of sample collected and are established by the EPA or professional associations, such as the American Public Health Association, the American Water Works Association and the Water Pollution Control Federation and are subject to change based on new science and the TCEQ executive director’s approval.

The TCEQ does, however, accept photographs of alleged environmental crimes. They ask that citizens provide:

  • the negative of the photograph.
  • the location, including site name and registration/permit/account/regulated entity number.
  • the name of the person taking the photograph.
  • the investigation number.
  • the complaint number.
  • a brief description of what the photo depicts.

Morrow said the TCEQ keeps information about the citizen who complained confidential unless he or she wishes for the agency to use the sample or photos as evidence to enforce an environmental law. In that case, the citizen cannot be anonymous and must complete a notarized affidavit.

Marwitz, the Formosa spokesman, said the company has installed multiple controls in the stormwater conveyance system, such as floating booms, wedge screens, gate screens and gabions. A gabion is a cage, cylinder or box filled with rocks, concrete or sometimes sand and soil. It is sometimes used for erosion control.

“Additionally, we have also installed screens on the process wastewater discharge. These systems are designed to prevent pellets that may enter the stormwater or wastewater systems from being released,” he said.

Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at jpriest@vicad.com or 361-580-6521.

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at www.jessicapriest.me.

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