Formosa plastic pellets

For years, residents have accused Formosa Plastics Corporation of polluting nearby waterways with plastic pellets.

A plastics company has been fined almost $122,000 for polluting a South Texas waterway with plastic pellets, marking a victory for a group of residents who for years have fought pollution in the region’s creeks, bays and shorelines.

At its 2,500-acre plant near Lavaca Bay, Formosa Plastics Corporation makes pellets that can be used to create plastic products. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with enforcing environmental rules, found that the company repeatedly failed to stop those pellets from making their way into a nearby creek that flows to a bay, which eventually leads into the Gulf of Mexico.

In response, TCEQ fined Formosa almost $122,000 and ordered the company to clean up the surrounding waterways twice a year, the first major penalty against Formosa for its failure to contain the pellets, according to an attorney representing a local environmental watchdog group.

When asked to comment, a spokesman for Formosa said he could not provide a statement before the Victoria Advocate’s deadline Wednesday evening. But local residents who have been pushing TCEQ to hold Formosa accountable for years say they hope the action could be a step forward in a larger movement to stop the company from polluting.

“It’s putting out tiny bits – millions of tiny bits – of plastics that are trashing the stream and the bay,” said Amy Johnson, an attorney representing a group that’s suing Formosa. “When they do that, they’re breaking the law – that’s what the Clean Water Act is about: not letting people dirty our water or our beaches.”

This is not the first time Formosa has come under fire for contaminating the environment. Repeatedly, the company has released chemicals into the air that could pose dangers to human health. In one instance last year, the company was fined more than $20,000 for failing to report that it released potentially cancer-causing chemicals into the air in 2015, and preventing a similar release the following year.

But the penalty ordered Wednesday could be the first time the company has been fined by TCEQ for allowing its plastic pellets to contaminate nearby waterways, according to an attorney representing a local environmental watchdog group. The penalty came after residents submitted a formal complaint about the issue in 2016, and TCEQ found plastic pellets floating down Cox Creek, which flows to a bay that opens into the Gulf of Mexico.

Although Formosa didn’t comment on the case Wednesday, a spokesman told the Victoria Advocate last year that the company agreed to go ahead and pay the fine so it could focus on preventing pellets from being released.

After the state reviewed the issue in 2017, Formosa removed almost 440,000 pounds of plastic pellets and debris from the nearby creek and bay, in addition to taking other steps at its facility to stop the pollution, according to state documents.

But environmental advocates say the fine isn’t enough to change how the Formosa plant and its multibillion-dollar parent company operate.

In 2017, a group of residents with an environmental watchdog group, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, sued Formosa to force it to comply with the Clean Water Act, a federal law governing water pollution. Their attorneys plan to argue that Formosa profited by failing to stop the pollution and skirting federal environmental laws. The lawsuit also asks a federal judge to fine the company – potentially millions of dollars.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and TCEQ had investigated complaints about Formosa discharging plastic for more than a decade, but neither agency had fined the company yet.

So residents took matters into their own hands. In two years, volunteers with the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper gathered more than 2,300 samples of plastic pellets and powders that were discharged – a small fraction of all of the waste, according to a news release from the group’s attorney.

“The EPA wasn’t doing anything about it. Formosa wasn’t doing anything about it. TCEQ wasn’t doing anything about it,” said Diane Wilson, who is leading the lawsuit against Formosa. “So we just started sampling.”

Wilson, who grew up in nearby Seadrift, a coastal town of 1,500 people, has spent the past few years working with other residents to monitor the region’s waterways and shorelines – and when necessary, file complaints with TCEQ. Over the years, the plastic pellets have come to litter beaches, line the bottom of creek beds and are swallowed by marine life, she said.

“A large amount of people (just) look at the jobs (at Formosa) and say, ‘We don’t care what happens out in that bay – it’s just pellets; it’s just powder,’” said Wilson. “They don’t realize the significance of how it affects us, how it can affect our bays, our community and our health.”

Marina reports on local government for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at mriker@vicad.com or 361-580-6511.

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Marina writes about housing, Hurricane Harvey recovery and local politics for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach Marina by emailing mriker@vicad.com or follow her on Twitter, @MarinaStarleaf.

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