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Just down the Gulf Coast from Houston lies an enormous plastics plant, one of the nation’s biggest.
It’s been a driving force in the local economy, and now it’s expanding, with promises of new jobs and tax revenue. But a handful of coastal residents are suing the plant, claiming it’s polluted the waters in their region for years.
In a creek off a highway in Point Comfort, Texas, Ronnie Hamrick has his mud boots on, a net in hand. He’s scooping up handfuls of what look like little beads, but they’re not some kind of creek creatures. They’re plastic pellets, each smaller than a penny.
Hamrick used to work at the Formosa petrochemical plant that makes the pellets, just across the road from where we’re standing. Now, he’s hell-bent on proving the plant is polluting.
“They don’t have permits to put this in the water,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”
That’s also the gist of a federal lawsuit filed against the plant this summer.
The local group “San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper,” part of the national “Waterkeeper Alliance,” is suing Formosa, saying the company is violating the Clean Water Act. They say the pellets can hurt fish and the region’s broader ecosystem, along with the local fishing economy.
“I don’t think they thought we would go through with it,” says Diane Wilson, a longtime environmental activist who is also part of the suit. She says in addition to demanding that the plant fix the problem and clean up the pellets from the waters, the plaintiffs wants a monitoring system set up.
“So if they say they’ve put in all these things and they’re not having discharges, we have monitoring in place to make sure,” she says.
Wilson and Hamrick say they’ve documented the pellets washing up around Lavaca Bay since January of 2016. Their lawsuit asks for a more than $57 million fine against the plant. But at the University of Houston, chemical engineer Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti, says that’s not likely to happen.
“Even in a state like California, where other companies have been charged with violating the Clean Water Act, the fines have been thousands of dollars,” he says.
Not much for a multibillion-dollar company, and one that’s growing. The company’s currently building onto its existing plant in Calhoun County, and it’s getting ready to expand into neighboring Jackson County.
“Right now they’re hiring construction workers primarily, so there’s a lot of R.V. parks in the area that stay full,” says Jackson County Judge Dennis Simons. He says his community is excited about the more than 300 new jobs the expansion could bring to a place where there’s not much other industry. And then there’s the tax money.
Simons, calculating the numbers as we speak by phone, says his county could see several million dollars in new tax revenue. He says he’s not much concerned about the lawsuit, saying he trusts the company is doing the best they can to be environmentally responsible.
Simons was the only local elected official we could get to talk to us about the case. But one commissioner did tell us the plant is the largest local employer, and the company already contributes millions to the local tax base.
A Formosa spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the case, but did point us to a letter the company sent in April. It suggests the pellets are spilling out of rail cars and urges shippers to be more careful.
Dr. Krishnamoorti, with the University of Houston, says what perplexes him about this case is that even after state regulators found Formosa was responsible for the pellets in the water last year, he says the company didn’t work to fix the problem as aggressively as other plants typically do.
“This is really not standard operating procedure for plastics manufacturing,” he says. “You’re putting valuable product out into the waterways. Why would you do that? This makes you money.”
As the federal lawsuit moves forward, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says it’s developing an enforcement case against the plant on a state violation.