Facility accused of regular discharges of plastic pellets into Raccoon Creek, Ohio River

PITTSBURGH – PennEnvironment and Three Rivers Waterkeeper announced Tuesday that they have sent a formal notice of intent to sue BVPV Styrenics LLC and its parent company, Styropek USA, Inc., for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act at their plastic manufacturing facility in Monaca, PA. The environmental groups allege the Styropek facility routinely discharges wastewater and stormwater that is illegally filled with the small plastic beads, called “nurdles,” that are manufactured at the plant. 

Located at the confluence of Raccoon Creek and the Ohio River, approximately 20 miles downstream of Pittsburgh, the Styropek facility produces as much as 123,000 tons of expandable polystyrene (EPS) each year, in the form of nurdles. The nurdles are small, rigid spheres that measure up to 3 millimeters in diameter. They are eventually expanded into a moldable foam, colloquially referred to as “Styrofoam,” which is used for everything from coffee cups to coolers and packing materials.  

The facility in Monaca is one of several owned by Styropek USA, Inc. Along with its foreign affiliates, Styropek USA, Inc. identifies itself as the “largest EPS producer in the American Continent” with “the largest distribution network in America.”

“Plastic pollution has become the poster child for litter that plagues our communities and planet, takes hundreds of years to decompose, and embodies the threats posed by our so-called ‘throw away’ society,” noted David Masur, PennEnvironment’s executive director. “Given the growing data that plastics and microplastics pose a significant threat to public health and our environment, Styropek’s illegal discharges of plastic beads are an egregious breach of the public’s trust.”

As part of Three Rivers Waterkeeper’s efforts to curb plastic pollution in the region, the group teamed with the Mountain Watershed Association to conduct monthly “nurdle patrols” of the Ohio River. One such patrol in September 2022 collected numerous nurdles of an unusually small size that the researchers eventually traced to Raccoon Creek and then to wastewater outfalls at the Styropek facility. The monthly patrols have observed additional Styropek nurdles within their trawl since September 2022.  

“When we began our monthly river patrols looking for plastic pollution in the Ohio River with Mountain Watershed Association, the Styropek facility wasn’t on our radar,” explained Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper. “But the scope of the nurdle releases that we’ve documented over the past year is alarming and requires immediate attention and action. Plastics in our waters break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making them ever easier to ingest by aquatic organisms and people. We are just beginning to understand the long term health impacts of ingesting plastics, and we can’t allow polluters to use us and our water resources as guinea pigs.”  

The environmental groups’ October 3, 2023, notice letter is the first step toward ending what the groups say are longstanding, illegal discharges of plastic nurdles from the facility into Raccoon Creek.  The letter, sent to the company as well as to state and federal environmental agencies, identifies evidence of copious nurdle accumulations in and around Raccoon Creek, including on bordering vegetation, on creek banks, and throughout river sediment. These discharges have been corroborated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection and the company’s own consultant.

The groups allege that any discharge of nurdles violates the Clean Water Act because the company’s wastewater discharge permit does not authorize the release of plastic pellets. In addition, the groups allege that the accumulation of nurdles in the water violates two permit conditions designed to protect water quality. As explained in the notice letter:

The ability of tiny, lightweight nurdles to make their way into aquatic environments through drains and watercourses is well understood. Even if composed of purportedly non-toxic materials, nurdles act as “toxic sponges,” attracting hydrophobic chemical toxins and transporting them throughout aquatic environments. Hundreds of fish species are known to ingest such plastics in marine settings. Microplastics ingested by fish can enter the food chain of humans and other animals. The nurdles released by the Styropek Facility pose similar risks to life in and around Raccoon Creek and the Ohio River.

“Every nurdle released by the Styropek facility creates outsized risks for our wildlife and environment that reach far beyond Raccoon Creek,” Masur said. “To limit and then eliminate these harms, the facility must come into full compliance with its legal obligations as quickly as possible and begin the difficult process of cleaning up its mess.”

Under the federal Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision, private citizens affected by violations of the law are allowed to bring an enforcement action against the violator in federal court. The first step in that process is providing 60 days’ notice of the violations to the violator, as well as to state and federal environmental agencies. Citizens can seek civil penalties and a court order requiring the violator to comply with the law and remediate the harm caused by its violations.

PennEnvironment is a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water and protecting Pennsylvania’s open spaces. For more information about our work, visit www.pennenvironment.org.

Three Rivers Waterkeeper, a member organization of the Waterkeeper Alliance, has a mission to improve and protect the water quality of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, which are critical to the health, vitality, and economic prosperity of our region and communities.  For more information about our work, visit www.threeriverswaterkeeper.org.

The groups are represented by the Boston-based, non-profit National Environmental Law Center, which represents citizen groups across the country in actions to enforce the nation’s environmental laws.  For more information, visit www.NELC.org.