Styropek USA, Inc. operates a major plastic production facility at the confluence of Raccoon Creek and a heavily industrialized stretch of the Ohio River, approximately 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Along with its wholly-owned subsidiary BVPV Styrenics LLC, Styropek produce approximately 123,000 tons of expandable polystyrene (EPS) beads, or “nurdles,” at the nondescript facility each year. The nurdles are small, rigid spheres that measure up to 3 millimeters in diameter. Styropek’s customers eventually expand the nurdles into a moldable foam, colloquially referred to as “Styrofoam,” which is used for everything from coffee cups to coolers and packing materials.
Although small in size, nurdles pose an outsize risk to the environment and human health. Lightweight nurdles frequently make their way into aquatic environments through drains and watercourses. Even purportedly non-toxic nurdles like those produced by Styropek act as “toxic sponges,” attracting hydrophobic chemical toxins and bacteria and transporting them throughout aquatic environments. Studies establish that hundreds of fish species ingest such plastics, which then enter the food chain of humans and other animals.
Knowing this, the staff of Three Rivers Waterkeeper were rightfully alarmed when they discovered in the Fall of 2022 that the Styropek Facility was routinely discharging nurdles into Raccoon Creek. During monthly “nurdle patrols” of the waterbody, they repeatedly documented nurdles bubbling to the surface from Styropek’s underwater outfall and coating aquatic vegetation. Because Styropek has no permitted limits for nurdles under the Clean Water Act, any discharge is a violation. Additionally, the company’s Clean Water Act permit specifically prohibits the discharge of floating solids that produce deposits or may have adverse impacts on aquatic life.
In December 2023, NELC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Three Rivers Waterkeeper and PennEnvironment to hold Styropek accountable and bring an end to the discharges as quickly as possible. The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.