You can describe Formosa Plastics as a “serial offender” of the environment, a polluter that must be stopped, as a federal judge recently did.
You also can characterize Formosa as a cornerstone of the Crossroads economy, with 2,400 Texas employees, plus 1,000 contractors providing an annual payroll of $226 million.
Both characterizations are true, leaving the average person in the uncomfortable position of trying to reconcile in their minds the age-old dilemma of jobs vs. the environment. However, this is the wrong frame for the conversation. A better one is employment plus the environment.
How much more could Formosa do to be a good steward of the environment?
Judge Hoyt also criticized the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which the Environmental Protection Agency has given the authority to issue and enforce Clean Water Act permits. TCEQ is failing at its job of protecting the environment, the judge said.
Hoyt is a senior judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. His words carry weight.
He logically concluded Formosa was violating its permit that allowed it to discharge only a “trace amount” of pellets or powder into the water. Many thousands of pellets are routinely found in nearby Cox Creek and Lavaca Bay. This is no trace amount.
Formosa’s top employees at its Point Comfort plant are understandably frustrated by the ruling because of the elaborate and expensive steps they have taken to try to stop the pellets and powder from escaping. They added some of these steps after the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, a nonprofit, brought the suit against Formosa in 2017.
If you examine the elaborate barrier system Formosa has created, you would be rightly impressed. The company provided a tour of this system and a copy of a diagram outlining it to the Victoria Advocate.
At the Advocate’s request, Formosa also provided an impressive list of its community involvement and contributions since the company opened in Point Comfort in 1983. Formosa is the largest taxpayer in Calhoun and Jackson counties, and its recent $5 billion expansion has kept the local economy strong despite cutbacks by other companies.
Formosa executives at Point Comfort say they are committed to figuring out how to reduce the discharge of pellets and powder even further. They disagree with the judge’s ruling, but they say they are committed to being good corporate citizens.
In the penalty phase of the trial, the judge will decide how Formosa must keep cleaning the environment, what design changes must be made to improve the system and whether fines should be assessed to the company because of its description as a “serial offender.”
Amy Johnson, a lawyer for Waterkeeper, said Formosa can achieve compliance through design work and other steps that can be taken at a cost that still would keep the plastics company hugely profitable. In 2017, Formosa USA reported a net income of $900 million.
The nonprofit’s expert outlined during the trial corrective steps Formosa should take. They focus on redesigning the plant’s stormwater and wastewater systems and on reducing the waste generated at the source.
Johnson described what Formosa has done so far as applying Band-Aids to the problem.
“It’s a systemic issue,” she said. “They need to address it systemically.”
Formosa experts also focus on stormwater, wastewater and source reduction, but the big divide, of course, is over how to improve these systems and how much to spend doing so. The judge will try to bridge the differences, or the two sides could work toward a settlement before then.
To settle, both sides would have to show true good faith in doing what’s best for the community and the environment. This would be a much better outcome than a federal court ruling, in which any fines assessed would go to the U.S. Treasury rather than to Calhoun and Jackson counties.
As the serial offender, Formosa will have to take the lead in showing this good faith. Employers and the environment can and must coexist.