A group of residents plan to sue Formosa if it doesn't stop releasing plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay.

Fish in the bay and surrounding waterways consume the pellets, which the residents say are toxic. That could harm people when they consume the fish.

Through their attorneys, the residents sent Formosa a letter demanding the company take "permanent" steps to stop the release and clean it up within 60 days. If Formosa does not, they intend to seek $45.3 million in penalties from Formosa, which they accuse of violating the Clean Water Act.

"I'm sure Formosa has been seeing us down at the bays, so this shouldn't surprise them," said Diane Wilson, who would be one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

Wilson, a local activist and former shrimper, and Ronnie Hamrick, a former Formosa employee, complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Feb. 18, 2016, about Formosa releasing pellets.

The TCEQ investigated and determined Formosa had violated its permit with the state. The permit allows Formosa to discharge between 9.7 million and 15.1 million gallons of wastewater every day into Lavaca Bay but not to release pellets. TCEQ did not fine Formosa, though, instead giving the company time to address the violation.

Brian McGovern, a spokesman for TCEQ, said the agency will assess whether Formosa addressed the violation, and TCEQ's investigation report as well as any supporting documents will likely be available to the public upon request the first week of May.

Wilson, Hamrick and other volunteers, meanwhile, have been collecting pellets along 20 miles of the shoreline for Cox Creek, Lavaca Bay and Matagorda Bay. Since Jan. 31, they've collected more than 1,064 samples.

Formosa had not received the notice of intent to sue as of Thursday afternoon, Formosa spokesman Bill Harvey said.

The company wrote in a statement in May, however, that it suspected the pellets were getting into Cox Creek through wastewater outfalls or after periods of heavy rain. The company said employees would survey the creek monthly and after heavy rains and remove the pellets manually or with a vacuum.

The money, should a lawsuit be filed and should the residents win, would go the Environmental Protection Agency and hopefully toward some sort of restoration project, such as building new reefs, Wilson said.

Formosa has been releasing pellets since at least 2004.

That's when the EPA found that Formosa's PVC Settling pond was overflowing, according to a letter the residents' attorneys sent the company.

The residents say they're not only concerned that Formosa may be fouling the natural beauty of the area but that it's harming wildlife.

They say the harm plastic pellets do is well documented.

When seabirds eat them, the pellets stay in their stomachs for up to a year, for example. When mussels eat them, they stay for up to 48 days.

Plastic pellets also absorb trace metals rapidly, which is troublesome because Alcoa's mercury superfund site already exists in Lavaca Bay, Wilson said.

Wilson was hopeful that Formosa would comply with the residents' demands rather than go to court. But, her 26 years of experience dealing with the company on environmental issues told her not to be surprised if it didn't.

"We're still collecting, and we're getting on average five or six samples a day. It has not slowed down a drop - even with the TCEQ investigating," she said.

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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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