Precedents Set: Big $$ Penalty Fueled by Key Citizen Evidence
Sometimes, unstoppable anti-pollution champions must get their feet wet. Literally, in polluted bays. Long on need yet short on cash for pricey consultants, clean water champions along the Gulf of Mexico’s Lavaca Bay (Texas) refused to accept that industry power and government indifference could openly poison their backyard. A successful court fight to stop Formosa Plastics’ ongoing illegal wastewater discharges of plastic pollution into the Bay and nearby waterways demanded hard, extensive evidence.
So a dedicated band of environmental heroes took 6000 photos and videos as they systematically monitored a 20-mile area, including 13 Formosa outflow dumps. They collected 30 containers of2,428 samples of illegally discharged plastic pellets and powder released by one of the dirtiest plastics makers anywhere. Bingo: grit plus low-tech solutions yield Texas-size breakthroughs.
That data haul convinced US Judge Kenneth Hoyt to make a precedent-setting decision in a state notorious for looking sideways at business law-breakers. He found
1) Formosa for years broke both federal Clean Water Act and Texas environmental laws, labeling the company a “serial offender” guilty of “extensive, historical and repetitive” wastewater contamination;
2) prohibited further toxic discharges;
3) scolded grossly lax Texas environmental enforcement; and
4) framed the remedy/penalty phase, with an explosive maximum of $184 million fine looming for Formosa’s 1,885 (!) violations.
Compare that to the $121,000 of pocket change wrist slaps the state environmental agency had levied against a convicted “serial offender.” This startling act of justice occurred, per Judge Hoyt, because “these witnesses provided detailed, credible testimony regarding plastics discharged by Formosa,” especially countless pea-size plastic pellets plus equally harmful toxins. The Clean WaterAct restricts anything beyond “trace amounts,” and that clinched it, confirming Formosa as a monumental, lawbreaking polluter. Game, set, and match.
Bravo for doggedness
Fighting powerful, rich, industrial polluters in a state notorious for mirage-like “standards” is not for the faint of heart. Nor the thin-skinned. Nor those who lack immense staying power. We’re talking a three-decade grind when famed Texas rebel-rouser and Codepink co-founder Diane Wilson (shrimper, boat captain, author, visionary, protest artist, and periodic guest at local jails) decided Formosa Plastics had to stop poisoning her beloved backyard, the bay once renowned for top quality, clean shrimp she once harvested. It had no right, morally, ethically, or legally, to sicken her neighbors. So she and co-plaintiffs from the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper filed the lawsuit.
“It’s wonderful, even astonishing to see justice being done,” said Diane Wilson, who spearheads the coalition, allied with the legendary, international Waterkeeper’s Alliance and the Texas Rio GrandeLegal Aid, Inc. (TRLA). “We have fought for so long to protect the beauty and health of our natural environment. We’re one step closer to making it happen. Not only is this a win, it’s a big win.”
“This is a victory for the environment and for citizens using the Clean Water Act to protect their rivers, streams, and bays,” said Amy R. Johnson, TRLA’s lead counsel. “The judge found our evidence to be very convincing.”
For 30 years, Diane and locals tracked the horrific correlations between Formosa’s toxic air and water emissions vs. vinyl workers concern over brain tumors, community buy-out of homes, and commercial fishermen’s plight from ruined fisheries. That wasn’t enough. They protested, raised consciousness, and tried legal challenges, petitions and inventive activism (like Diane sacrificing her own fishing boat, climbing towers, multiple hunger strikes, even defying a prison sentence). That helped, but still wasn’t enough. What finally broke through was the potent coalition of legal prowess — and scads of overwhelming evidence no fair-minded judge could ignore.
Now precedence is set. Add the upcoming good news that huge financial penalties will force Formosa to remedy toxic discharges. Further, what happened here can galvanize other Davids everywhere fighting entrenched, toxic Goliaths. Mammoth polluters often commandeer remote, under-populated places, delivering needed jobs to desperate counties. They intimidate critics and local media who shrink from criticizing. Despite its ironic name, the state “environmental quality” commission condones lawbreaking that privatizes profits while “socializing” horrendous “externalities.” Translation: pocket the profits, keep officials at bay, and handoff high damage mitigation costs to the public — when and if possible.
Despite this judicial bombshell, Diane’s tainted backyard will never be the same. What the EPA Toxic Release Inventory once ranked as America’s “most toxic” place still applies for, beyond plastic pollution, a now-defunct Alcoa plant produced a mercury superfund site, with such high levels fish are unsafe to eat. In the late 20th C, Calhoun County offered the ideal trifecta for the taking: depressed economics, low-population, and perfect placement next to the Gulf, an easy garbage dump. Formosa is only one of many serious polluters, and Lavaca Bay continues to suffer. Truly, does any once pristine area deserve to become a garbage dump because it’s well located near water and without powerful friends in high places?
Key Gulf players, like Marc Yaggi, Waterkeeper Alliance’s Executive Director, are already looking to the next battle:
Formosa Plastics, a petrochemical giant, netted more than $900 million in profits in 2017, now planning a $9.4 billion facility in St. James Parish [Louisiana]. Despite more than enough money to invest in clean technology, Formosa is a notorious offender [now forced to] do the right thing — make investments in their wastewater and stormwater systems and reduce the waste they create.
Diane’s group has an under-visited GoFundMe site to continue their ceaseless rebellion against lawbreaking polluters. Throw in a few bucks — I just did, and they will leverage for maximum clout. San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper – FORMOSA GAME OVER!
Finally, from a rousing profile I did a few years back that captures Diane’s achievements:
Texas journalist Molly Ivins once joked about rebel-rouser-activist Jim Hightower: “If Will Rogers and Mother Jones had a baby, Jim Hightower would be that child – mad as hell, with a sense of humor.” Well, Hightower has a protest soul sister, the inventive, congenial, yet self-declared “eco-outlaw” named Diane Wilson. Unlike armchair activists and witty journalists, this champion takes risks, gets bloodied, arrested, and endures jail — then turns her adventures into good-hearted, epic tales reminiscent of Mark Twain.
I strongly recommend her two, laugh outloud personal depictions of her unplanned, unintended yet highly fruitful activist life.
An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas
Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth