For a decade, Port Lavaca-area residents and environmental groups begged state and federal regulators to crack down on Formosa Plastics for what they alleged was the rampant and illegal discharge of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay and other nearby waterways.
This week, they scored a huge victory when U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled that the Taiwanese-owned company was in "enormous" violation of its state-issued permits and the federal Clean Water Act — and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had been either unwilling or unable to bring the company into compliance.
"The evidence demonstrates that Formosa has been in violation of its Permit concerning the discharge of floating solids ... since January 31, 2016 and that the violations are enormous," Hoyt wrote in his ruling, issued Thursday. In his conclusion, he described Formosa as "a serial offender." Hoyt noted that the company had argued that a $121,875 fine TCEQ imposed for six violations in April and May 2017 made the lawsuit moot.
"Not so," Hoyt wrote. "Based on the overwhelming evidence, the TCEQ’s findings and assessment merely shows the difficulty or inability of the TCEQ to bring Formosa into compliance with its Permit restrictions."
The company was in violation of the law for "some 1,149 days," he noted, adding, "The evidence shows that Formosa has never reported a single discharge of floating solids to TCEQ."
A TCEQ spokesperson declined comment. Formosa didn't respond to a request for comment.
Diane Wilson, a retired shrimper and an environmental activist, and San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper sued Formosa in July 2017. During the weeklong trial, which began in late March, the plaintiffs dragged in boxes full of thousands of milky white plastic they had painstakingly collected from Lavaca and Matagorda bays and Cox Creek with the help of volunteers.
"I have felt justice delivered and it’s a very rare feeling, and I’m having a hard time getting my head wrapped around what this feels like," Wilson said Friday. "The judge saw us and he heard us."
She said the next phase of the trial, in which penalties will be determined, is likely to take place in September.
The plaintiffs are seeking $162 million — $104,828 for every day Formosa was out of compliance with state and federal environmental permits and laws that require companies to report such violations. Any penalties would go toward cleanup costs.