Environmentalists take petrochemical giant Formosa to court over plastics pollution

For years, Diane Wilson has tried to get Formosa Plastics Corp. to stop discharging plastic pellets from its sprawling petrochemical complex on the Central Texas coast. This week, she's getting her day in court.

Diane Wilson takes a break from organizing bins containing thousands of plastic pellets that she and other activists have collected from Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek over the past three years.

SEADRIFT — On a warm, breezy afternoon last week, Diane Wilson stood at the front of a deep, metal storage shed, covered in a sheen of sweat. It was still full of stuff — blue tarps, file cabinets, luggage and plastic boxes filled with paperwork. But it had been far more crowded just days earlier.

Wilson had spent the week shuttling cardboard boxes and plastic bins into a borrowed livestock trailer. The containers were packed with baggies chock-full of thousands of milky plastic pellets and water bottles filled with chalky white powder. For years, Wilson — a retired shrimper whose family has lived on this part of the Texas Gulf Coast for more than a century — painstakingly collected the waste from a nearby bay and creek from her kayak and on foot.

On Monday, she’ll haul it into a federal courtroom in Victoria, where her pro-bono lawyers will present it as evidence of illegal dumping by Formosa Plastics Corporation, a Taiwanese petrochemical manufacturer that operates a sprawling, 2,600-acre plant in Point Comfort. After years of waging a grassroots war against the company — the community’s largest employer — Wilson is finally getting her day in court.

Diane Wilson and members of the San Antonio Bay Estuarian Waterkeeper have collected more than 2,400 pellets since 2016.

“There are pellets and powder in the bay, in the harbor, and it’s also on the shores. It’s at Magnolia Beach, Indianola Beach, Lighthouse Harbor, where people go to swim. You can find it anywhere you go, and it blows your mind,” Wilson said. “There needs to be light shown on the truth. Finally, people around here will know exactly what is going on.”

Wilson said she first learned about the plastic pellets in 2009 when a former Formosa employee asked her to meet in Rockport, 50 miles away, to determine if Wilson was trustworthy. The following year, she unsuccessfully asked state regulators to revise Formosa’s permit to include stricter language that would prevent unlawful discharges.

Eventually, she lodged formal complaints against the company with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2009, the EPA fined Formosa $13 million for air, water and hazardous-waste violations. But Wilson said the company has continued to discharge pellets into the bays and still isn’t reporting it to the state, as required by law.

So in July 2017, Wilson sued Formosa in federal court under a law that allows citizens to sue industrial polluters when government regulators fail to act. She and her co-plaintiffs, the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeepers, are seeking penalties of up to $184 million — $104,828 per day for every day Formosa was allegedly out of compliance with state and federal environmental permits and laws that require companies to report such violations.

It’s the maximum penalty allowed under federal law, lawyers for the plaintiffs noted in the lawsuit. But Wilson said that amount only accounts for the past three years — not the entire 26 years she alleges Formosa has been discharging illegal amounts.

Formosa Plastics Corporation's plant is in Point Comfort, Texas.

Formosa’s state permit prohibits the discharge of floating solids and “floating solids or visible foam in other than trace amounts.” Wilson’s suit argues the amount of discharge is clearly more than trace amounts.

In its initial response to Wilson’s complaint, Formosa denied violating its permits or the Clean Water Act.

“Formosa denies that it has illegally discharged or is illegally discharging or that it has harmed or is harming Cox Creek, Lavaca Bay, Matagorda Bay, the surrounding wetlands, beaches, or their wildlife,” the filing said.

Formosa declined to comment for this article.

But since Wilson and the Waterkeepers filed suit, Formosa has taken a variety of steps to tamp down on waste, including hiring private contractors to clean up the pellets and constructing buildings to store them.

In January, Formosa said it had formed an industry group called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste with the intended goal of “eliminating plastic waste in the environment.” Other alliance members include oil, gas and chemical companies like Dow, ExxonMobil, P&G, ChevronPhillips and Shell.

Also in January, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality slapped Formosa with a $121,875 fine for failing to prevent the release of solids and properly analyze wastewater samples.

TCEQ said it does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesperson said a subsequent investigation is ongoing after the January fine.

Wilson said the fine was a nominal amount for an international company that plans to build a $9.4 billion facility in Louisiana.

Like her father, her uncles and her brothers, Wilson worked the Gulf waters as a shrimper — she retired in 2003 — and she takes water pollution personally. She says the plastics in the waterways have decimated the local fishing economy.

Across the bridge from the Point Comfort plant, Poor Boy Bait shop owner Dora Terry said the plastic pollution is partially to blame for a sharp decline in the amount of the shrimp, crabs and mullets in the bay that shop employees catch to sell as bait.

Poor Boy Bait shop in Port Lavaca sits just across the bay from the Formosa plant. Owner Dora Terry says plastic pollution has negatively impacted her business.

Terry said she first noticed a dramatic decline in shrimp hauls in 2015. Now, she says the amount people catch is so low, they have to truck some in from Galveston.

“We used to be able to go out there and catch 75, maybe 100 pounds a drag,” Terry said. But the other day, she said, an employee caught only 10 pounds in 12 hours.

Wilson, who is 70, said it’s traumatic seeing what’s happened to shrimping and fishing in the area.

“The water was our lifeblood, a community, a way of being,” Wilson said.

Diane Wilson scrolls through thousands of photos she's taken of Formosa's plastic pollution over the past three years. Over her desk, a needlepoint reads, "Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History."
Diane Wilson talks about her decades-long history battling Formosa Plastics. She's a fourth generation shrimper and says her motivation for challenging the plastic corporation is to protect the sense of place of her home. Seadrift, Texas. March 20, 2019.

Last week at her home outside of Seadrift, Wilson sat at her computer and clicked through a sampling of some 7,000 photos and videos she and others have taken over the past three years of the alleged industrial pollution. Her skin is tan and weathered from years on the water, and her silver hoop earrings shake as she recalls her decades-long fight with Formosa. A needlepoint on the wall reads, "Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History."

Wilson says her high-profile protest has not made her the most popular local. Many people, especially those who know Formosa workers, are unwilling to speak against the company because it’s a major regional employer, Wilson said. She says she’s received private messages on social media from residents afraid to express support for the cause.

Thomas McGarity, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s a good sign for Wilson that a judge granted a trial in the case. He added that Formosa’s lawyers could argue that the main evidence in the trial — the thousands of plastic pellets collected by Wilson and other activists — were not collected properly.

“There’s this notion in environmental groups of a bucket brigade, where they just go out and do it for themselves, which is kind of a romantic idea,” said McGarity, who specializes in environmental and administrative law. “But it often doesn’t play well in court because there are all sorts of rules about preserving data that a nonexpert can easily run afoul of.”

Ronnie Hamrick points out the plastic pellets he collected with a swift scoop of his small net. Point Comfort, Texas. March 20, 2019.
Ronnie Hamrick, a former employee at the Formosa plant in Point Comfort, shows Diane Wilson some of the plastic powder he collected earlier that day. "There's no way they [Formosa] can get out of this," Hamrick says, "If they do, there's something wrong with that judge." Point Comfort, Texas. March 20, 2019.

Ronnie Hamrick, who worked at the Formosa plant for 25 years as a shift supervisor, collects pellets daily on behalf of Waterkeepers, wading out into the shallows of the creek and bay in black, knee-high rubber boots for four to eight hours at a time.

“They buy land by the water, so they can use it to their advantage,” Hamrick, who retired in 2005, said of Formosa. “It’s easier to dump it than it is to sit there and sweep it up and clean it.”

Walking beside State Highway 35 last week, Hamrick pointed out a group of 13 men standing just off the shoulder of the road wearing waders and orange vests. He said they are contract workers Formosa hired a few years ago to clean up pellets and other waste discharged from the plant.

Contractors hired by Formosa clean up plastic pellets and powder along the bank of Evaporation Lake, which feeds into Cox Creek. Wilson said this has been largely ineffective. On March 20, this cleanup crew worked directly across the highway from the Formosa plant.

But as long as the plant continues to discharge the waste, Hamrick said, the crews can’t keep up. Their efforts are "a waste of time,” he said.

Hamrick says he’s confident the judge will find the company at fault. He said activists have simply collected too many samples from the waters around the plant.

“There’s no way that they can win this,” Hamrick said. “It’s impossible.”