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Formosa Toxic Waste Spill and Plastic Pollution in Lavaca Bay, Texas, United States


Description:

Formosa Toxic Waste Spill and Plastic Pollution in Lavaca Bay, Texas. - Description.  Lavaca Bay, located in Calhoun County, Texas, is an important bay ecosystem formerly rich with biodiversity but now extremely contaminated with various types of pollution. The bay is also home to one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States (under CERCLA) because of its heavy mercury contamination from nearby aluminum production plant Alcoa [6]. Consequently, Calhoun County was ranked as the nation’s number one spot for toxic waste disposal in 1989 [7]. At this time, the fish and shrimp populations were drastically declining, which devastated the local population of small-scale shrimpers and fishermen whom greatly depended on the bay for their livelihoods [4]. Moreover, Formosa Plastics Corporation (FPC), a Taiwanese company, also had just built a petrochemical plant manufacturing PVC and other plastics in Point Comfort, a small town on the shores of the bay [8, 9]. FPC is infamous for its long and excessive history of  environmental and human rights violations and is in the 90% percentile of the world’s top polluting companies [9, 10]. Yet Formosa Plastics insisted the plant was "the jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast," and would put out "zero toxic emissions" into the community. The economic development crowd was overjoyed, and Texas government at all levels scrambled to offer tax reductions to this new source of money [9].

 A local fisherman with three different kinds of cancer told fourth-generation shrimper and low-income single mother of five Diane Wilson about these alarming developments, which disturbed her greatly and drove her to act against FPC [5]. She began investigating the company, which “had totally changed the ecosystem” according to the Texas Water Commission as well as “indicated genetic damage in cattle as far as six miles away from Formosa’s chemical plant in Point Comfort, where workers have also dealt with concerns of brain cancer and cases of neurological damage for decades” according to a report from Texas A&M. Wilson and her watchdogs found shoddy construction from the very beginning of the new plant’s construction and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later found massively contaminated groundwater under the plant. Formosa was repeatedly fined for water quality violations, Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations, etc. but had been covering those up for a long time [9]. Calling local meetings with her fellow residents to share her discoveries, however, was not well-received because various officials and business people did not like anyone attacking what was thought of as the county’s next biggest employer. Neighbors shunned her, smear campaigns undermined her reputation, thugs threatened her, and she began receiving death threats [11].

 In 1995, Wilson caught FPC dumping millions of gallons of toxic wastewater directly into the bay without any wastewater permits [9]. To fight this crime, she teamed up with several nonprofits as well as environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn to file a lawsuit against the company [9]. She also tried to garner more attention to the cause with a publicity stunt in which she snuck her shrimp boat on top of the source of the illegal discharge in the middle of the night and stranded it there. The Coast Guard later confiscated the boat and arrested her, accusing her of being a terrorist [2]. This would be the first of thirteen stints in jail she would face throughout her activism [11]. Continuing to move forward with the lawsuit after her release, however, she faced a major betrayal when Jim Blackburn went behind her back to negotiate with FPC and signed a deal to stop acting against FPC that he thought would protect the community. Wilson was so upset by his actions during an already turbulent period that the night before the deal was to be put in place, she went out on her boat and tried to kill herself with pills and wine. Her suicide attempt failed, she “just felt horrible and the deal went ahead anyway” [9].

 With only up to a high school education, she educated herself on legal analysis and briefing while also regularly doing hunger strikes, nonviolent protests, and acts of civil disobedience, never giving up her battle with FPC [11]. For twenty years, she was also talking with the workers inside the Formosa facility about unreported toxic releases, workers falling and dying from unsafe towers and ladders, rusty breathing air valves or no breathing air at all, breached toxic basins that ran across the fields, killing everything in its path, and uncontained vinyl chloride leaks so plentiful that the alarms were shut off in the control room so the workers could get some peace. These workers sent complaints to Formosa’s management, but the complaints weren’t welcomed and would get workers fired [9].

 On October 6, 2005 at approximately 15:00, a hole ripped in one of the pipes at the Point Comfort plant, leaking a pool of liquid propylene which then became a flammable vapor cloud. Workers in the area immediately evacuated the area and operators tried to shut down the machines manually but were slowed down by the vapor cloud. Consequently, there was a massive propylene release and explosion. Emergency response teams eventually isolated the resulting fire and shut down the plant, though the fire continued to burn for about a week. The fires reached upwards of 250 meters tall and could be seen in surrounding towns. The accident injured twelve workers, four with severe burns requiring hospitalization. Many others were treated for exhaustion, pulmonary problems, and debilitating physical injuries [14]. Formosa Plastics was charged with many infractions of structural and working condition violations by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, fining them for $148,000 [13].

 In October 2009, the EPA held a meeting with community members warning them about Formosa contaminating groundwater with ethylene dichloride, tainting local water wells. Public health officials began persisting on getting FPC to release information on the consequences of their pollution and poor working conditions to little success. Many workers have been diagnosed with severe illnesses and cancers, especially brain cancer, and several have already died. In response torapidly rising panic among workers about brain cancer, FPC brought a doctor in to tell all the employees that there is no link between petrochemical exposure and brain cancer and they were probably developing knots on their heads from all the barbeque they ate [9].

 After thirty years of fighting, Wilson finally made a breakthrough with her efforts to sue FPC. In July 2017, FPC’s Point Comfort plant dumped between 151 tons of plastic pelletsand powder into Lavaca Bay and between 1,556 tons of plastic and powder into Cox Creek, according to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid [12]. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because widespread outrage over the incident gained massive support for the cause against FPC, resulting in Wilson and a coalition of environmental groups finally succeeding in finalizing a lawsuit against the company for $50 million  which will be used to clean up the plastics. U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt sided with environmental activists on July 9, 2019, ruling that Formosa violated state and federal law when its Point Comfort plant dumped the plastics into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek. "I have been doing this around 30 years now and this was the first time I ever felt justice was delivered," Wilson said in an interviewwith the Houston Chronicle [3].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Formosa Toxic Waste Spill and Plastic Pollution in Lavaca Bay, Texas, United States
Country:United States of America
State or province:Texas
Location of conflict:Point Comfort
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Chemical industries
Other industries
Specific commodities:Chemical products
Plastics

Project Details and Actors

Project details

FPC’s Point Comfort site consists of sixteen production units and a variety of support facilities at its nearly 1012-hectare petrochemical complex. It began as a PVC plant in the 1980s with a $900 million investment but expanded in 1994 to produce more types of petrochemicals with an additional investment of $1.5 billion. It also has a new wastewater treatment facility following the plastic dumping scandal. FPC currently employs 1,910 full-time workers and 795 contractors [8].

Project area:1012
Level of Investment for the conflictive project2,400,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:21,381
Start of the conflict:28/06/1989
End of the conflict:05/12/2019
Company names or state enterprises:Formosa Plastics Group/Formosa Plastics Corporation (FPG/FPC) from Taiwan
Relevant government actors:Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Texas Water Commission, Coast Guard,
Environmental Protection Agency, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:-Texas A&M University (https://www.tamu.edu)
-Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (https://www.trla.org/)
-Bioneers (https://bioneers.org/ )
-CODEPINK (https://www.codepink.org)
-Break Free From Plastic (https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org)
-San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeepers

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Women
Local scientists/professionals
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Hunger strikes and self immolation

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Food insecurity (crop damage), Genetic contamination, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Repression
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The plant still operates today as the largest Formosa plant in the United States, but it has now agreed to stop dumping illegal wastes and has been heavily fined in contribution to the cleanup necessary to fix the damaged bay.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[14] Fire at Formosa Plastics Corporation: Evaluating Process Hazards
https://web.archive.org/web/20071026063456/http:/www.csb.gov/completed_investigations/docs/Formosa_TX_Case_Study_07-14-06.pdf

Formosa Plastics Corporation, U.S.A. Announces Settlement Arising from Pellet Discharge Lawsuit
http://www.fpcusa.com/company/news/releases/FPC USA Settlement News Release - FINAL v2.pdf

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[7] Sustaining the Earth Chapter 14
https://www.cengage.com/c/sustaining-the-earth-11e-miller/9781285769493PF/

Documentary: Texas Gold
http://www.texasgoldmovie.com/featurefilmsynopsis.html

P Godfrey. Diane Wilson vs. Union Carbide: Ecofeminism and the Elitist Charge of “Essentialism”. Capitalism Nature Socialism. Volume 16, 2005 - Issue 4.
https://doi.org/10.1080/10455750500376008

Diane Wilson vs. Union Carbide: Ecofeminism and the Elitist Charge of “Essentialism”
https://doi.org/10.1080/10455750500376008

[1] Formosa Plastics History
https://newbloommag.net/2016/09/09/formosa-plastics-history/

[3] Texas Environmental Activist Diane Wilson Wins $50 Million Lawsuit
https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/12/05/david-and-goliath-story-texas-environmental-activist-diane-wilson-wins-50-million

[4] Passion into Action: Diane Wilson
https://web.archive.org/web/20110115152529/http:/www.seejanedo.com/component/content/article/10-social-justice/192-diane-wilson.html

[8] Formosa Plastics: Our Operations
http://www.fpcusa.com/company/operations/point_comfort_tx.html

[9] Diane Wilson: Diatribe on Formosa Plastics
https://www.ethecon.org/en/938

[10] Scorecard: Toxic Chemical Releases
http://scorecard.goodguide.com/env-releases/facility.tcl?tri_id=77978FRMSPPOBOX#major_chemical_releases

[12] Judge finds Formosa liable for plastic pollution at Texas plant
https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/amp/Judge-finds-Formosa-liable-for-plastic-pollution-14060091.php

[13] OSHA Fines Formosa for Violations
https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/region6/04052006

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

VIDEO: Greening the Gulf
https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/50eded28-96d5-4443-89a2-61ee80bf29d3/50eded28-96d5-4443-89a2-61ee80bf29d3/#.XhML0EdKiUk

Other documents

Wilson and her boat Photo credit: Courthouse News
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/4883/Wilson_boat.jfif

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update08/01/2020
Conflict ID:4883

Images

 

Diane Wilson

Photo credit: Our Daily Planet

Lavaca Bay

Photo credit: Plastic Pollution Coalition