PITTSBURGH – PennEnvironment and Three Rivers Waterkeeper announced Tuesday that they have filed a federal lawsuit against BVPV Styrenics LLC and its parent company, Styropek USA, Inc., for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act involving illegal discharges of plastics from their plastic manufacturing facility in Monaca, Pennsylvania.

“Whether we reach a negotiated settlement or a litigated solution, our goal in this case is the same: to end the illegal discharge of harmful plastic pollution into Raccoon Creek, the Ohio River and our environment,” said David Masur, PennEnvironment’s executive director. “Our right as private citizens and citizen groups to directly enforce the federal Clean Water Act against violators is a critical tool we can use to achieve that goal.”

PennEnvironment and Three Rivers Waterkeeper, two nonprofit environmental groups, allege in their complaint that the Styropek facility located at the confluence of Raccoon Creek and the Ohio River discharges wastewater and stormwater that is routinely filled with tiny plastic beads, called “nurdles,” that the plant manufactures in vast numbers. The lawsuit claims that federal law prohibits these discharges.

The Styropek facility is located approximately 20 miles downstream from Pittsburgh and annually produces as much as 123,000 tons of these expandable polystyrene nurdles, each just 3 millimeters or less in diameter. They are later expanded and molded at other facilities into familiar products such as Styrofoam.

“The discharge of microplastics into our waters is an immediate and growing problem right here in western Pennsylvania, posing threats to aquatic life and potentially even to people,” explained Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, which first discovered and documented Styropek’s illegal discharges. “While we are open to discussing a negotiated resolution of Styropek’s violations, we will not shy from our intent to hold the company fully accountable for its ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act.”

The environmental groups say a settlement could potentially end the legal proceedings more quickly because the companies have said they want to avoid litigation in favor of negotiation — a stance the groups applaud. The groups have already had communications regarding the violations alleged in the complaint with representatives of the companies and with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and intend to explore every opportunity to reach a speedy resolution that will ensure the immediate and long-term health of the affected waterbodies.

As part of Three Rivers Waterkeeper’s efforts to curb plastic pollution in the region, the group has teamed with the Mountain Watershed Association to conduct monthly “nurdle patrols” of the Ohio River. Since September 2022, patrols have found significant numbers of the tiny plastic beads, or nurdles, and traced them to Raccoon Creek and the wastewater outfalls at the Styropek facility, where they accumulate in the water and on vegetation, creek banks and river sediment. DEP and Styropek’s own consultant have corroborated these findings.

The groups’ lawsuit alleges that any discharge of nurdles violates the Clean Water Act because the company’s wastewater and stormwater discharge permit does not authorize the release of the plastic pellets. In addition, the groups allege that the accumulation of nurdles in the water and along creek banks violates two permit conditions designed to protect water quality from floating solids and from substances inimical to aquatic life.

The facility in Monaca is one of several owned by Styropek USA, Inc., and is immediately downstream of the recently opened Shell Polymers Plant in an area full of plastics manufacturers. 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.”

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 after providing 60 days’ notice of the violations to the violator and to state and federal environmental agencies. In this case, the plaintiffs filed their notice of intent on October 3, 2023. 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, and by Michael Comber, Esq., of the Pittsburgh firm Reisinger Comber & Miller, LLC. For more information, visit www.NELC.org.