How Plastic-Industry Pollution Threatens Gulf Seafood
Rising plastic production needs strict new federal pollution controls
From Padre Island to the Florida Keys, the Gulf of Mexico is turning into a plastic soup. Researchers are finding microplastic trash in almost every water sample collected from the Gulf, at some of the highest concentrations reported in the world. And the situation is about to get far worse — off the Texas coast and in other U.S. waterways.
That’s because the petro-plastic industry is embarking on a reckless expansion boom. Determined to turn the country’s oversupply of fracked natural gas into more throwaway packaging and products, industry plans to build or expand 80 facilities that turn fracked gas into plastic, including 48 in Texas.
In addition to pumping out vast mountains of single-use plastics, these facilities will directly pollute the air and water. We’ll get little protection from antiquated federal water-pollution rules, sadly: Many of them haven’t been updated since Ronald Reagan was president.
That’s why a coalition of more than 275 conservation, environmental-health and community organizations — including the one I work for — just filed a legal petition demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency update its water-pollution control and monitoring regulations for ethane crackers and other plastic plants, as the Clean Water Act requires.
Without strict new pollution controls, the industry’s plastic-making binge will contaminate frontline communities on the Gulf Coast and in Appalachia and worsen the ocean plastic crisis. Plastic producers can’t be allowed to release plastic, benzene, phthalates, dioxin and other dangerous pollutants into local waterways.
Among other desperately needed updates, the regulations need to establish a zero-plastic pollution discharge standard for these facilities, whether in pellet, powder, resin or other form. Because, right now, the plastic industry pollutes our rivers and oceans in almost unbelievably flagrant ways.
A federal judge in Victoria, Texas recently called Formosa Plastics a “serial offender” of those too-weak, outdated federal and state pollution-control rules for its dumping of billions of plastic pellets into Cox Creek and Lavaca Bay from its Point Comfort, Texas plant.
Even after the company was fined and ordered to clean it up by the state, and even after the judge’s ruling that it’s liable for that pollution, plastic still lines and fills those waterways.
Former shrimper Diane Wilson, one of the Texas plaintiffs who brought the civil case against Formosa and spent years documenting its pollution habit, says plastic pollution is a major threat to the environment and seafood industry. Toxic pollutants adsorb into plastic, which, when eaten by marine life, can travel through the food web all the way to our dinner plates.
Before fully cleaning up its mess in Texas, Formosa is already moving on to neighboring Louisiana, where it’s proposing to build an even larger plastic-making industrial complex on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish.
Without stricter controls, the plastic and pollution Formosa discharges into the Mississippi River will flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening Louisiana’s billion-dollar seafood industry.
The harm to public health of failing to update these water-pollution standards is unacceptable, particularly in low-income communities of color where plastic plants tend to be located. Formosa’s new Louisiana facility would be built in the heart of “Cancer Alley,” where high concentrations of industrial pollutants cause cancer, respiratory ailments, and other health problems for local residents.
The Clean Water Act clearly calls for regular updates of pollution-control standards with the latest science and technology. That has not happened for the plastics industry. It should have happened years ago — and it absolutely must happen before the industry reaches its stated goal of increasing plastic production by 35 percent by 2026.
Our communities and oceans can’t keep paying the price while the petrochemical industry pockets the profits and walks away from its mess.
Julie Teel Simmonds is an attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.