NELC serves notice of intent to file suit against North America’s largest styrofoam manufacturer

PITTSBURGH, PA.—At a press conference held on Oct. 3, National Environmental Law Center (NELC) attorneys announced the service of a formal notice of intent to sue Styropek USA, Inc., and its wholly owned subsidiary BVPV Styrenics LLC, alleging that the companies’ plastic-manufacturing facility in northwestern Pennsylvania is in chronic violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Sent on behalf of Three Rivers Waterkeeper and PennEnvironment, the notice alleges that wastewater and stormwater discharged from the facility into Raccoon Creek, a tributary to the Ohio River, routinely contain quantities of the small plastic pellets (or “nurdles”) manufactured on site.

Located along a heavily industrialized stretch of the Ohio River approximately 20 miles outside Pittsburgh, the Styropek facility produces as much as 123,000 tons of expandable polystyrene nurdles each year. The nurdles Styropek manufactures are small, rigid spheres that measure up to 3 millimeters in diameter. The company’s customers eventually expand the nurdles into a moldable foam, colloquially referred to as “Styrofoam,” used for everything from coffee cups to coolers and packing materials.

Although small in size, nurdles discharged to waterways 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 can 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.

The discharge of nurdles from the Styropek facility was first detected by Three Rivers Waterkeeper in September 2022, after the group began conducting monthly “nurdle patrols” of the Ohio River as part of its efforts to quantify plastic pollution in the region. When the patrols began, the group did not even know the Styropek facility existed. But staff soon noticed peculiar nurdles floating near the mouth of Raccoon Creek, and traced them to an underwater outfall they soon learned was from the Styropek facility. Three Rivers Waterkeeper staff quickly lodged complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and with Styropek itself. They described thousands of nurdles bubbling up from the company’s underwater outfall, floating along the surface, and covering aquatic vegetation. Both the agency and company investigated and soon acknowledged the issue, but the discharges continued. Then Three Rivers contacted PennEnvironment and NELC for help.

NELC’s notice letter alleges that Styropek violates the CWA in two ways. First, the facility operates pursuant to a permit issued under the CWA, and the permit identifies exactly which pollutants it can discharge. Because the permit does not authorize the discharge of nurdles, NELC’s notice alleges that the release of these substances into Raccoon Creek is an “unpermitted discharge of a pollutant,” a clear violation of the Act.

Second, Styropek’s permit forbids the facility from creating specific water quality problems. NELC attorneys allege the ongoing nurdle discharges violate prohibitions against (1) causing the accumulation of floating solids, and (2) discharging substances that are “inimical or harmful” to human, animal, plant, or aquatic life.

“Most Clean Water Act lawsuits use a company’s own publicly available monitoring reports to prove that it exceeded permitted limits on a pollutant,” explains NELC Attorney Matt Donohue, “but nurdles aren’t even mentioned in Styropek’s permit, so the violations seen here are easy for regulators and the company to overlook.”

“This case illustrates why plastic pollution can be so difficult to rein in,” he notes, “Without private citizens willing to invest their time and resources, this conduct probably goes unchallenged.”

Under the CWA, citizen plaintiffs may bring suit to enforce permit limits 60 days after providing formal notice to the violator and state and federal regulators. This gives the violator time to come into sustained compliance and allows the agencies to file their own suit if they choose.

If NELC attorneys bring suit against Styropek and BPVP, the suit will be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh.

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Entire Fifth Circuit reconsiders Exxon penalty

NEW ORLEANS—In an unusual move, all 17 active judges on the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in May on Exxon’s latest attempt to avoid a record-setting $14.25 million civil penalty for committing over 16,000 Clean Air Act violations at its Baytown, Texas, oil refinery and chemical plant complex. No decision has yet been rendered.

Here’s how we got here:

NELC attorneys, representing plaintiffs Environment Texas and Sierra Club, had prevailed on appeals in this long-running case twice before, in front of two different three-judge panels of Fifth Circuit judges. The second appellate victory affirmed the Houston-based trial judge’s record penalty assessment.

Exxon then made an extraordinary and rarely granted request to have its most recent defeat reconsidered by the full “en banc” panel of Fifth Circuit judges. The court granted that request without explanation, requested yet more briefing by the parties, and scheduled oral arguments for May 16, 2023.

The packed New Orleans courtroom featured numerous Baytown residents who are neighbors of Exxon’s massive oil refinery and chemical plants. They made the trip from Texas out of concern for how the outcome of this case could affect their future health and well-being. Representatives of national and local environmental groups, other environmental attorneys, and members of the media, along with representatives of the chemical industry, also helped fill the viewing gallery.

For over an hour, the judges peppered lawyers for both sides with questions.

At issue was a novel legal theory Exxon concocted that, if accepted, would make it much more difficult for people living in highly polluted areas to prove they have a sufficient interest in a particular company’s compliance with its air pollution limits to give them legal “standing” to seek civil penalties large enough to deter future violations – even where, as in this case, they live virtually next door to ongoing violations committed by the largest petrochemical plant complex in the country.

In a potential boost to NELC’s request that the Fifth Circuit strictly adhere to established legal precedent on the standing issue, the U.S. Department of Justice sought special permission to appear in person at the hearing and was given time to argue in support of the rights of citizens to bring cases like this one.

In addition, Environment Texas and Sierra Club received the backing of four separate amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs, submitted by the City of Houston and a diverse range of environmental groups and legal scholars.

Exxon, not surprisingly, was supported by fossil fuel and chemical industry trade groups, to whom the court also granted permission to speak.

A decision is expected later this year.

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NELC welcomes new attorney Lewis DeHope

BOSTON—In September, NELC welcomed attorney Lewis DeHope to our litigation team. Lewis graduated from the University of Alabama in 2017 and Harvard Law School in 2021.

Lewis rejoins NELC following his first stint here as a summer intern in 2019. In the interim, he spent a year in law school with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in the Environmental Protection Division, and two years as an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in the Charleston, South Carolina office. At SELC, he aided in the litigation of a variety of environmental cases, including a complex Endangered Species Act case that resulted in greatly increased protections for horseshoe crabs and threatened red knot shorebirds.

“I am thrilled to return to NELC – there’s no place I’d rather be,” Lewis said. “I’m fortunate to join a great group of people doing great work, and I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.”

Off the clock, Lewis is most often found listening to the Grateful Dead, usually either in the kitchen or the gym. His remaining time is spent enjoying the natural beauty of New England with his wife, Emily.

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