A Taiwanese plastics company will put $50 million towards environmental stewardship on the Texas Gulf Coast to settle a lawsuit by residents who spent years documenting plastic pellet pollution outside the company’s plant in Point Comfort, Texas. 

San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper members represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, among others, won a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against Formosa Plastics, lawyers for the plaintiffs announced in a Tuesday news release. The plaintiffs claim it’s the largest-ever Clean Water Act settlement that came out of a lawsuit brought by private parties rather than a government agency. 

“If we can do it, anybody can,” Diane Wilson, 71, a former shrimper who heads the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper group, told the Rivard Report in a phone interview Tuesday. 

Diane Wilson, leader of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper group, stands second from left with other group members.
Diane Wilson, leader of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper group, stands second from left with other group members.

Since January 2016, Wilson and about four other core volunteers, many of whom are former Formosa plant workers, spent nearly every day collecting plastic powder and the pellets known as nurdles from the marshes and creeks surrounding Lavaca Bay in Calhoun County. 

“We had no support, no money, and our outstanding quality was persistence,” Wilson said. “We had rain, wind, sometimes we were up to our waists in water. Amazingly, it’s paid off. It still kind of blows my mind.” 

Formosa officials did not immediately respond to a phone message left at their U.S. corporate offices in New Jersey. The plastics manufacturer is based in Taiwan but has plants in Delaware, Illinois, and Louisiana, in addition to its Point Comfort location. 

The settlement came months after U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled in the plaintiff’s favor in June, calling Formosa a “serial offender” and its plastic discharges “extensive, historical, and repetitive.”

If approved, the settlement announced Tuesday sets out a timeline for Formosa to fix the problems at its Point Comfort plant with the help of an outside engineer. The parties also must agree on a monitor, who will serve as a plastic pollution watchdog. If caught discharging plastics, Formosa could have to make payments of $10,000 per instance of pollution in 2019, ramping up to $30,000 per day in 2023. 

The settlement also includes five years of funding totaling $50 million for environmental projects, many of them meant to fix the damage caused by water pollution on the Coastal Bend. None of the money will go to the plaintiffs.  

The breakdown of funds include:

  • $20 million for “creating a cooperative that will revitalize depleted marine ecosystems and develop sustainable fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting.”
  • $10 million for environmental development of Green Lake, a tidal lake on the Guadalupe River, “into an environmentally sound public park.”
  • $2 million to control erosion and restore beaches at Magnolia Beach in Calhoun County. 
  • $5 million for environmental research of San Antonio and Matagorda bay systems and river deltas that feed into them.
  • $1 million to support the “Nurdle Patrols” of volunteer groups that collect plastic pellets at the University of Texas’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. The pellets will be used to “document and research plastic pollution of the Gulf and its shores,” the release states. 
  • $750,000 to the YMCA in Calhoun County “for camps for children to study and learn how to be good stewards of the local marine environment.”

“A settlement of this size sends a powerful message to corporate polluters – there’s a steep price to pay for flagrant, chronic violations of laws that protect our environment,” said Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Erin Gaines, who represents Wilson, in a prepared statement. “With plastics pollution of our oceans at a crisis, the message comes at a vital time.”

Wilson said she hopes the settlement will serve a beacon for other groups fighting to keep plastics out of the oceans.

“What we want is it to set a standard of plastic companies in the USA,” Wilson said. “They should not be able to discharge any plastic pellets and powder.” 

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.