A Texas federal judge has found a huge Formosa plastics complex northeast of Corpus Christi to be a "serial offender" with a history of allowing plastic pellets to wash into wetlands and bays along the Gulf of Mexico, and said that the company has committed "enormous" violations of state law and the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt of Houston on Thursday holds the company liable for past illegal discharges and sets the stage for orders to clean up the tiny pellets and halt future discharges.

Later proceedings will determine penalties for the company that plaintiffs contend should range between $95 million and $184 million.

In Louisiana, environmentalists and local residents already opposed to a $9.4 billion Formosa plastics plant proposed along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish are calling attention to the ruling as a warning sign for the future.

“Formosa Plastics needs to be held accountable for polluting Texas, not invited to the do the same thing in our community,” said Sharon Lavigne, director of Rise St. James, a local community group that has opposed Formosa and other new industrial facilities proposed in the parish.

“We’re already suffering from too much industrial pollution, my kids and grandkids are suffering, and now they want to put more on us. We can’t let that happen,” she added in a joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

The pellets and related plastic powders are end products from a nearly 2,500-acre complex in Port Comfort, Texas. According to permit records in Louisiana, the Formosa complex proposed in St. James will also be producing pellets.

Dubbed Project Sunshine, the huge plastics facility just south of the Sunshine Bridge near the community of Welcome is proposed for 2,319 acres in the rural northwestern part of the parish. Several new or expanded methanol and petroleum storage facilities are also planned there.

The facility, which is expected to bring with it 1,200 permanent jobs and 8,000 temporary construction jobs, has strong backing from state and local economic development groups, local parish and school leaders, and Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The company has estimated the project will generate $500 million in local spending and $362 million in state and local taxes. Company officials have said the new complex would meet or exceed all state and federal environmental requirements, and they have agreed to local parish restrictions to limit its impact on residents.

A public hearing is set July 9 on Formosa's air permits, also a concern for environmentalists, but Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials said Formosa has not submitted the permit application for its water discharge application, where controls on pellet releases might be addressed.

Greg Langley, DEQ's spokesman, declined to comment Friday on the impact of the judge's ruling on the agency's review of Formosa's stormwater control plans, citing agency policy about commentary while permits are pending.

According to related water quality documents, however, the company plans to treat and route rainfall runoff discharges from inside the primary complex into the Mississippi. Rainfall runoff that doesn't fall inside the main complex grounds, so called noncontact stormwater, will be routed without treatment to a canal that leads to the parish's back swamps.   

Janile Parks, a spokeswoman for FG LLC, the Formosa corporate entity behind Project Sunshine, said the treatment system handling discharge into the Mississippi will have filter and membrane tanks, flotation units and other systems to capture the pellets and other solids.

The stormwater system, which handles discharge into the back swamps, will route water through junction boxes, retention ponds and fabric filters to capture the pellets, Parks said.

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"FG will do its part to minimize and prevent plastic materials from the facility from entering the waterways of Louisiana," Parks said, noting that Formosa Plastics is part of an alliance to end plastic waste.

Judge Hoyt's ruling followed a weeklong civil trial in Victoria, Texas, in late March. Formosa declined to comment on the ruling.

Volunteers and experts working with the plaintiffs, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper and retired local shrimper and environmental activist S. Diane Wilson, presented Hoyt with daily accounting of the discharges and analysis showing it traced back to Formosa's discharge pipes. 

Hoyt called the plaintiffs' evidence of those failures undisputed and faulted how Formosa tried to prevent release of the milky white pellets from 13 drainage pipes into Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek for more than three years.

Hoyt recounted in his 21-page ruling company testimony describing how Formosa tried to control pellets and powders at the production source. The company had employees and contractors visually assess and try to capture the pellets as they moved through that plant's drainage ways and treatment systems and even installed booms, nets and other measures. 

None of these procedures were effective, the judge found.

At trial, Formosa didn't dispute it was allowing the pellets into the water but argued its Texas discharge permit allowed the release of unspecified "trace amounts."

Judge Hoyt calculated that under the company's theory of what constitutes a "trace amount," just three of its 13 discharge pipes could legally release 28,060 pellets per day.

Hoyt rejected that explanation and a Formosa expert's contention that the company was in compliance with its pellet management practices.

"His conclusion is illogical," Hoyt wrote. "Formosa cannot be in compliance simply by saying so."

Hoyt also ruled that a $121,875 fine Texas environmental regulators issued against Formosa in January did not make the plaintiffs' civil claims moot but only underscored state regulators' inability to keep the company in compliance. 

Hoyt found the plaintiffs established hundreds of days of violations between early 2016 and this March that are in addition to the violations from mid-2017 that regulators uncovered.

Contacted on Friday night, Wilson, the plaintiff, said Hoyt's ruling represents the culmination of a decade of fighting the company's handling of the pellets, trying to get state regulators to pay attention and finally seeing justice happen.

Wilson said one of her regrets is that she didn't fight the Port Comfort plant more vigorously years ago and suggested Louisiana residents should take a lesson from her experience.

"They do not want them. They do not want this nightmare," Wilson said.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.