Formosa Plastics Agrees to Pay $50 Million Settlement for Polluting Texas Waterways

Agreement is the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals

VICTORIA, Texas (Oct. 15, 2019) – Petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics Corp. has agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit over federal Clean Water Act violations brought by Texas residents. The agreement is the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals. The company – whose Point Comfort, Texas plant has discharged billions of plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek – also agreed to comply with future “zero discharge” of all plastics and clean up existing pollution.

This record financial settlement will fund environmental mitigation in the region around the Point Comfort facility in Calhoun County. It is five times the previous largest settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals. (Public Interest Research Group of N.J. v. Witco Chemical Corp., Nos. 89-3146, C-359–83 (D.N.J. Jan. 15, 1993). The largest Clean Air Act suit brought by private individuals awarded $19.95 million. (Environment Texas & Sierra Club v. ExxonMobil, S.D. Tex. 2017)).

In no other case have private individuals collected as much evidence to prove illegal discharges. 

“The years of fighting to protect the natural resources of the Lavaca Bay-Cox Creek area have finally paid off,” said Diane Wilson, a former shrimper and a plaintiff in the suit, along with members of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “It’s a huge victory for the environment – and for the people who love and depend upon it. We look forward to working with Formosa to restore the health of our environment and make sure it stays pristine.” 

“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 (TRLA) attorney Erin Gaines, who represents Wilson. Gaines added, “And with plastics pollution of our oceans at a crisis, the message comes at a vital time.” 

The settlement, proposed by the plaintiffs and Formosa, must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, who already ruled for the plaintiffs after hearing the liability phase of the case.  

None of the $50 million settlement will be awarded to the plaintiffs.

The settlement funds will be paid out over five years into a fund that will support projects that reverse the damage of water pollution in Texas’s Calhoun County. Some of those projects 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 park, the 2ndlargest natural lake in Texas, into an environmentally sound public park. $2 million to control erosion and restore beaches at Magnolia Beach. $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” at the University of Texas’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, and to give scholarships to allow persons throughout the Gulf coast to attend Nurdle Patrol conferences. The brainchild of the Reserve’s director Jace Tunnell, the Nurdle Patrols are volunteer groups that collect plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, in order to document and research plastic pollution of the Gulf and its shores. $750,000 to the YMCA for camps for children to study and learn how to be good stewards of the local marine environment.

“This case is a shining example of the crucial role that citizen enforcement suits play in seeing that our cornerstone environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, actually fulfill their purpose of protecting our environment and public health,” said Josh Kratka, senior attorney at the National Environmental Law Center. “When state agencies and the U.S. EPA fail to secure compliance, private citizens and environmental groups must have the ability to step in to ensure polluters are held accountable.”

The settlement details how and when Formosa will make improvements to its plant to eliminate the discharge of plastic pellets. Plaintiffs will be allowed to review decisions and make objections throughout the process – from the hiring of an engineer to design the improvements, to the monitoring of Formosa to achieve zero discharge. If Formosa is found to be in violation again, it will pay for every documented discharge back into the settlement fund. Payments will start at $10,000 per discharge this year and increase in annual increments to over $54,000 per discharge. 

“Through reporting requirements, an independent monitor, site visits, and other accountability requirements, we will have access to the process to determine whether Formosa is living up to its side of the bargain,” said Bob Lindsey, a plaintiff and member of the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “We will have the power to make sure Formosa fulfills its promises.”

Amy Johnson, an attorney for TRLA who also represents Wilson, said, “Since at least 2000, Formosa’s Port Comfort facility has discharged plastic pellets and powder into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek. “Our engineers were key in documenting that plastic pollution would continue unabated unless dramatic changes were made to the plant. We will now work with Formosa to make sure those improvements are made, and the discharges are stopped.” (TRLA attorney Jennifer Richards also worked on the case.)

In July 2017, Wilson and the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper members – represented by private co-counsels David Bright of Corpus Christi and David Frederick of Austin – filed suitagainst Formosa Plastics Corp., Texas and Formosa Plastics Corp., USA. 

Collecting their own evidence, they patrolled Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek on an almost daily basis for nearly four years, picking up samples of Formosa’s discharges. In total, they collected 2,428 samples of pellets and plastic powders and stored them in zip-lock bags and bottles marked with dates, times, and locations. They also took thousands of photos and videos of plastic pellets in the water and along shores. Packing the samples into boxes, they took them to the courthouse in downtown Victoria, where they presented them as evidence during the liability phase of the trial earlier this year. 

In his ruling for the plaintiffs, Judge Hoyt wrote, “these witnesses provided detailed, credible testimony… .” He described Formosa as a “serial offender” and wrote that its violations of the Clean Water Act were “extensive, historical, and repetitive.”

For the trial, Jeremy Conkle, an assistant prof
essor of environmental chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, provided an estimate of the quantity of pellets that Formosa discharged. For the past few years, Formosa has been both discharging plastic pellets and trying to clean them up. As such, Conkle was able to estimate how many had been spilled by finding out from cleanup crews how many had been collected. From April 2017 through February 2019, the crews removed between 341,000 and 3.4 million pounds of plastic debris, which equals 7.6 billion to 75 billion individual pellets, according to Conkle’s calculations. (See Addendum

“It’s great news that Formosa Plastics is finally being held accountable for polluting Texas waterways with plastic pellets,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The zero plastic discharge requirement this settlement won should be the standard for all plastic plants across the country.”

Photo: Plaintiffs David Sumpter, Diane Wilson, Bob Lindsey, and Ronnie Hamrick.

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In a groundbreaking show of support for the planet and future generations, the Berkeley, CA City Council unanimously passed an ordinance focused on reducing waste and limiting single-use plastic on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

The Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance will be fully implemented by January 1, 2022. A phase-in plan begins Jan. 1, 2020.

Community supporters filled Council chambers and cheered for the local elementary school students, who were dressed in vests attached with single-use plastic items. The students delivered speeches to garner council members’ support.

Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center and chief strategist for the ordinance, noted, “We cannot recycle our way out of the disposable foodware problem. We have to focus on reduction.”

Backed by a coalition of more than 1,400 local, national, and international organizations, a lineup of speakers in support of the measure addressed council for almost two hours.

Supporters included Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) members and partners UPSTREAM, The Story of Stuff Project, the GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Steelys Planet, and the Surfrider Foundation, among others. A letter of support from PPC Notable Member and chef Alice Waters was mentioned during remarks.

Speakers included Annie Farman, a PPC Executive Advisory Board member, who worked closely with the business community to garner letters of support; Sandra Curtis, PPC’s Director of Innovative Projects, who focused her remarks on the health risks of single-use plastic from exposure from foodware; Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff Project and current Executive Director of Greenpeace USA; Angela Howe, Legal Director of Surfrider; Samantha Sommer, Waste Prevention Manager, ReThink Disposables, Clean Water Action; and Miriam Gordon, program director for UPSTREAM; in addition to members of the community.

Council member Hahn explained the need for the ordinance. Single-use disposable foodware and packaging (SUDs) – including plates, cutlery, cups, lids, straws, “clamshells” and other containers – are a major contributor to street litter, ocean pollution, marine and other wildlife harm and greenhouse gas emissions. The use of disposable foodware has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Because the environmental costs of these products are largely hidden to the business operator and consumer, little attention is paid to the quantity of packaging consumed and quickly thrown away. Reducing the use of these products in the City of Berkeley is a key strategy to achieve the City’s Zero Waste and Climate Action goals, and to address the many environmental impacts and costs associated with the use and disposal of single-use foodware and packaging. SUDs often become litter; therefore, minimizing their use will assist the City with achieving storm water program requirements and could reduce costs for maintenance of full trash capture devices that the City has installed in storm drains.

Initially introduced to Council last April, the ordinance was referred to the city’s Zero Waste Commission who held four public hearings and collected comments from over 60 restaurateurs, environmental advocates, members of the people with disabilities communities, and other community members.  This information was used to revise the ordinance.

While recognizing that change is difficult, Hahn stressed that the business community is their partner in this effort which will save the City and businesses money. The ReThink Disposables program under Clean Water Action provided data to demonstrate cost savings to businesses. City officials validated that they would be able to work within the Zero Waste budget allocation to implement the program.

Here’s what the ordinance will do:

Upon Passage of the Ordinance:

  • Accessory Disposable Foodware (forks, straws, lids, condiment packages and other small disposable items) will only be provided by request or at self-serve stations.

  • Food vendors may refuse to fill unsuitable or unsanitary cups provided by customers.

  • The City of Berkeley may only purchase and use reusable or BPI Certified Compostable foodware at its own facilities and City-Sponsored events.

  • Food Vendors that allow self-bussing will be required to provide three color-coded bins labeled for recyclables, compostables, and other waste.

Starting January 2020:

  • Disposable Foodware will be required to be BPI Certified Compostable (the City will post a list of suppliers offering compliant foodware).

  • Food vendors can seek waivers to use recyclable alternatives for foodware items not available or reasonably priced in compliant compostable formats.

  • Food vendors will show a charge of  $0.25 for disposable hot and cold cups (total price of the beverage can remain the same or increase – the charge simply must be broken out, and if a customer supplies their own cup, the charge is not applied).

  • The charge must be visible to customers on media such as menus, displays and receipts.

Starting July 2020:

  • Food vendors offering eating “on the premises” (eat-in) may only use reusable foodware (durable/washable) for eating-in.

  • Food vendors may either provide cleaning and sanitation facilities on-site or contract with a service (similar to a linen service) for off-site cleaning.

  • Technical Assistance and Mini-Grants will be available to support food vendors in establishing new facilities and practices to meet reusable eat-in foodware requirements.

  • Hardship waivers will be available.


The spirit of this legislation is to partner with food vendors to make transitions workable – and effective. Implementation is phased, and enforcement of each phase will focus on helping businesses make the transition. All enforcement must be preceded by a notice of non-compliance and the opportunity to cure or to request a waiver, and receive technical support.  

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