When plastic pours into the Mississippi, who’s responsible?

By Jacob Wallace | 09/29/2020 01:20 PM EDT

Millions of plastic pellets spilled into the Mississippi River last month. Afterward, activists and researchers say, government agencies dragged their feet, with no one wanting to claim responsibility for cleaning it up.

Nurdles washed up in Louisiana after an August spill in the Mississippi River.

Nurdles washed up in Louisiana after an August spill in the Mississippi River. Mark Benfield

Millions of plastic pellets spilled into the Mississippi River last month. Afterward, activists and researchers say, government agencies dragged their feet, with no one wanting to claim responsibility for cleaning it up.

Up to 743 million of the pellets, called nurdles, may have fallen into the river at the Port of New Orleans, based on estimates from a similar spill that occurred in South Africa, said Mark Benfield, a professor and plastic pollution expert at Louisiana State University.

He said the government response was troubling.


"Nobody seemed to think it was their responsibility," Benfield said.

He pointed out that Formosa Petrochemical Corp. plans to build the country’s biggest nurdle plant in St. James Parish. "If we can’t contain a spill like this, how are we going to handle a place like that?" he said.

Nurdles are the plastic industry’s raw material, the first step between the petrochemicals often plumbed from shale in Texas and Louisiana and the end product. Their size — tiny cylinders or pellets just a few millimeters in diameter — makes them difficult to remove from the environment.

In the weeks after the August spill, federal and state regulators promised to investigate who was at fault, but they didn’t coordinate any cleanups. That frustrated Benfield and others who knew the pellets were already on their way downriver toward the Gulf of Mexico.

As more plastic production plants are planned in the United States, activists say the federal government must begin taking the long-term effects of plastic pollution seriously.

"This confusion occurring in Louisiana is indicative of a lack of coordination between federal and state authorities," said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

She’d like to see plastic classified as a hazardous substance. "I think we’re going to have to reevaluate how we define plastic and the labels that we give it under the law," Simmonds said.

A perfect storm

On Aug. 2, a shipping container full of nurdles fell off the container ship CMA CGM Bianca during a thunderstorm, the New Orleans Times-Picayune first reported. When the container was retrieved two days later, sacks full of nurdles fell into the river and spilled open.

The Coast Guard was aware of the spill the day it occurred and notified Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) that evening, according to a statement from the Coast Guard’s Eighth District.

After a caller filed a report to EPA’s National Response Center late the evening of Aug. 6, the Coast Guard again notified the DEQ that "industrial plastic pellets" had been washing up on the shoreline.

It wasn’t until Aug. 12 that LDEQ first sent out a vessel with its own staff and a researcher from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to examine the extent of the impact. By then, many of the pellets had already washed much farther downriver en route to the Gulf of Mexico.

The CMA CGM Group, a France-based shipping company, paid an undisclosed sum to U.S. Environmental Services, a private cleanup company based in Texas, to gather the pellets that were still accessible on the sandbanks of the Mississippi. The company sent out workers with leaf blowers and booms beginning Aug. 21 to blow the pellets back into the water, where they could be collected.

But Benfield of LSU estimates as much as 75% of the pellets may have been swept downstream.

The CMA CGM Group has not responded to multiple requests for comment about its cleanup efforts.

LDEQ said in a statement that it followed the proper timeline in assessing the environmental damage from the spill.

"LDEQ begins spill cleanups as soon as possible," spokesperson Megan Moore said in an email.

The Port of New Orleans, where the spill took place, said that because it is a "landlord port" with private cargo operators, it is not responsible for accidents such as the one that occurred Aug. 2.

"Regulatory agencies have jurisdiction over environmental issues," spokeswoman Renee Aragon Dolese wrote in an email.

Nurdles from Texas plant. Photo credit: @SenatorTomUdall/Twitter
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) says he keeps a jar of nurdles on his desk that came from a Formosa Plastics production plant in Texas involved in a 2019 pollution lawsuit. | @SenatorTomUdall/Twitter

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are co-leading a marine casualty investigation into the accident that led to the spill. These kinds of joint investigations typically occur when there is significant property damage, loss of life or significant harm to the environment triggered by a marine accident.

In this case, the investigation was triggered not by its environmental impact but because property damage from the accident was estimated to be greater than $500,000, in part because two cranes were damaged during the storm, according to a statement from the Coast Guard.

Regulations governing plastic spills can be difficult to parse.

"Given the overlapping duties of the EPA, Coast Guard, Port of New Orleans and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to protect our waters from pollution under a variety of state and federal statutes, the foot-dragging around this nurdle spill has been appalling," Simmonds said.

States issue permits to factories and other pollution sources limiting what can enter waterways under the Clean Water Act, but the federal law does not define a limit for plastic pellets. As a result, states set their own plastic pollution limits and can give broad leeway to producers.

When it comes to transportation mishaps like the one in Louisiana, a spill of a hazardous substance requires an immediate response from a coalition of agencies including EPA and the Coast Guard under the Clean Water Act. But plastic is not classified as a hazardous substance.

In the case of the Aug. 2 spill, responsibility fell to LDEQ, which decided that the voluntary efforts of CMA CGM Group to remove the pellets were sufficient.

A bill proposed Thursday by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) would set a nationwide standard for plastic pellet pollution: zero. The "Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act" would amend the Clean Water Act to prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets into stormwater or wastewater, as well as ban their discharge from any "point source," including transportation like a cargo ship (E&E Daily, Sept. 25).

"We can put simple solutions into action today to prevent plastic pellets from continuing to pollute and damage our health — we have no more time to waste," Udall said in a statement.

Regulating plastic pollution

A shrimper and fourth-generation resident of Seadrift, Texas, Diane Wilson has been pushing for increased regulation of a Formosa Plastics Corp. production plant in nearby Point Comfort, Texas, since 1989.

By 2016, Wilson’s primary goal became convincing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that Formosa Plastics was not living up to its permit requirement to keep "trace amounts" of solid plastic pollution — including nurdles — out of its wastewater.

That work led to a lawsuit assisted by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in which activists brought thousands of samples of the nurdles to court, along with video and photographic evidence of pellets getting released at the Point Comfort plant.

In 2019, a judge ruled in the activists’ favor. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt called Formosa Plastics’ violations of its wastewater permit "enormous," writing that the company’s failure to notify state authorities about near-daily emissions of plastic pellets and polyvinyl chloride powder into navigable waters in violation of its permit meant that "Formosa totally failed and refused to comply with a known duty."

Formosa Plastics agreed to pay $50 million to a privately held fund.

But Wilson still routinely kayaks out onto Lavaca Bay, the location of much of the plastic pellet discharge, to collect additional samples and find new pellets.

In Texas, Louisiana and other states, plastic producers have been allowed to release "trace amounts" of solid waste pollution from plastic plants, a standard that Hoyt in the Formosa Plastics case found "highly interpretable" and often exploited by industry.

Jane Patton, a plastics expert for the Center for International Environmental Law, has been working with community members in her native Louisiana to prevent nurdles from entering waterways from a Formosa Plastics plant in Baton Rouge, as well as from transportation mishaps like the massive spill in August.

She said allowing plants to dump "trace amounts" of solid plastics into wastewater has in fact allowed large numbers of plastic pellets to enter waterways. She, along with Simmonds, Wilson and other activists, believes plastic production plants should be held to a zero-discharge standard for solid plastic pollution.

LDEQ has a dual role in working with the industry to allow production as a permitting agency and protecting the public from spills. Patton said that if there is to be a meaningful change in plastic pollution, the agency has to start putting safety and enforcement ahead of profits.

"The Louisiana DEQ interprets the Louisiana Constitution to mean that it is just as much their obligation to maximize economic benefit for communities as it is to minimize environmental harm," Patton said. "There are many ways in which the DEQ interprets its job to actually be favoring industry over the immediate needs and what I would interpret as the safety of local communities."

The agency said in response, "LDEQ’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Issuing permits and enforcing their provisions is common for environmental agencies on the state and federal levels, including EPA."

Formosa Petrochemical’s Louisiana division said in an emailed statement that it would comply with all LDEQ guidelines on solid plastic pollution at its new facility in Louisiana’s St. James Parish. However, Formosa Petrochemical has not filed for a permit governing its wastewater or stormwater, and LDEQ rules allow construction on the facility to begin before the permit application is submitted.

The Louisiana water quality code limits solid pollution to anything less than "concentrations sufficient to produce distinctly visible solids or scum," a standard that activists are concerned is as weak as the "trace amounts" standard used in Texas.

Knowing the risks

Jace Tunnell, a researcher at the University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute, has been researching nurdles entering waterways since 2018. After he noticed the plastic pellets washing up on a beach in Corpus Christi, Texas, Tunnell created an accessible way to measure the amount of nurdles showing up on shores around the country.

Tunnell has since partnered with 80 activist groups, citizen science organizations, schools and others to track the appearance of nurdles across North America. A Facebook group dedicated to the activity has more than 2,000 members, who post about their latest nurdle counts and potential incidents for fellow members to investigate.

After the Aug. 2 spill, Tunnell said, members posted about noticing an uptick of nurdles along the Mississippi River within days.

A sample gathered Aug. 10 from a member of NurdlePatrol.org included 500,000 nurdles found on the shores of Chalmette Battlefield beach in Chalmette, La., in 10 minutes of gathering. The group’s previous record was 30,000 nurdles, found during a patrol of Galveston Bay in 2019.

"People should be real concerned," Tunnell said.

Tunnell argued that one of the core issues with cleaning up nurdle spills is that plastic pellets aren’t categorized as a hazardous material under the Clean Water Act. Because of that, spills of the pellets don’t receive the kind of immediate response an oil spill would.

"For emergency response, you know, you say plastic pellets, and they’re not considered hazardous, so what’s the hurry?" Tunnell said.

Activists and researchers agree that a spill of solid plastics doesn’t present the same kind of immediate danger as an oil spill, but many are concerned about plastics’ continued effects on the food chain and the environment.

Tunnell notes that in 1992, EPA published a report detailing the effects of plastic pellets in the environment. The report cited research as far back as the 1980s indicating that additives to plastic pellets "are known to be toxic and that toxic effects from the plastics additives may be more significant in aquatic organisms than previously thought."

Studies since then have shown microplastics can be toxic to wildlife and humans.

Benfield, the LSU researcher, said fish and wildlife that ingest the pellets are exposed to "organic pollutants" the plastic has picked up. The pellets can also trick a fish or bird into thinking it’s full when they get lodged in the digestive tract, causing malnutrition that could eventually kill the animal.

Benfield believes that companies like CMA CGM Group should be held responsible when plastic is dumped into the environment, and that government agencies can’t wait for the nurdles to wash out into the Gulf of Mexico before they start issuing judgments.

"If I took trucks to the edge of the French Quarter and started dumping millions of shopping bags into the water, you can bet someone would stop me and there’d be repercussions," Benfield said. "But not with these raw nurdles."