Big Oil Evaded Regulation And Plastic Pellets Kept Spilling

Environment: NPR
|

Automatic TRANSCRIPT

Of tiny plastic pellets have been spilling into oceans and rivers the world over where birds and fish eat them. They are the building blocks of all plastic melts. Three hundred fifty of them. You get a yogurt cup thousand. Get you a water bottle. But an npr pbs frontline investigation found. The oil and plastic industry has long known there an environmental problem. Npr's laura sullivan brings us this story. About how the oil and plastic industry evaded regulation despite decades spills. You probably haven't spent a lot of time standing on train tracks looking at your feet or looking at the edge of a highway outside a plastic manufacturer. But if you did. There's a good chance you'll see them little plastic pellets. This is kocsis creek. In looking at fresh pellets that has fallen out of the turks. Ronnie hammer is standing on state road. Thirty five in southeast texas rising four square miles behind him as the petrochemical plant formosa plastics. There're not just here. They're over there. They're in portable alaka. You're gonna find them down the road not an anti plastic environmentalist. He's a former supervisor. Who worked at formosa for twenty five years. And while he worked there he says he was told to cover up spills of plastic pellets. I won't do to put down the phone number. You know what i'm saying. They want to keep it low. So so you lie. That's my job. This britain butter so i got to do what they say. You got a family. What's striking about standing outside formosa and finding pellets. A hundred yards from the plants edge. Is that last year. Formosa agreed to pay fifty million dollars to settle a lawsuit in which it agreed to zero discharge of pellets. And yet here they are and down in the creek where the plant drains thousands more a federal judge called formosa a serial offender. Formosa says it's working to improve its containment systems but formosa is just one of thousands of companies that either make or use plastic pellets in the united states. The oil and plastic industry says it doesn't have a problem. Officials told me formosa was simply a quote bad actor while leading companies like exxon and chevron recently told shareholders that their dozens of facilities worldwide the either lose not a single pellet or just to sandwich bags full. And here's how they say they've done thanks again for signing onto operation operation. Clean sweep is a voluntary program. The industry came up with in nineteen ninety-one companies that join watch videos and promised to keep pellets from spilling plants trucks ships and railcars. There's no data required no numbers nothing public. The operation clean sweep is truly making a difference together. We can achieve zero pellet flake and powder the industry says it's been a success. Pellet containment is incredibly important to our members. Steve russell was until recently the vice president of plastics. For the american chemistry council jointly runs the program. Nobody wants plastic in the environment. And if a spill happens and if we're gonna assume it's an accidental release then it will be reported and remediation steps can be taken for most. Isn't clean sweep member. So i asked to former workers an ronnie hammer about it. I have no idea what jeevan talking about. I've never heard of. There's evidence the industry does in fact have appellate problem recent spills on beaches in louisiana and south carolina and studies show pellets are contaminating killing birds and fish and carrying toxins through rivers. There's no evidence. The industry has known about this problem. All along in two thousand five industry participated in a study of ten pellet plance it found pellet washed away in heavy rain at every single facility and called operation clean sweep inadequate but even long before that there's a memo buried inside thousands of documents. Leftover from old industry lawsuits. It was written in march. Nineteen ninety-one the industry's trade association warns top executives from chevron dow dupont and others that the epa had recently found pellets to be quote ubiquitous in the environment regulation. Permits are likely coming. The memo says unless act quickly it may still be possible to institute voluntary programs to address the pellet issue it says unless this occurs. It is likely. Epa will act independently then just four months later. We developed a program that was called operation. Clean sweep lou. Freeman was a vice president at the time for the trade association then called the society of the plastics industry. I don't recall any discussions about quantitatively measuring the success of the program. It was being measured really about who is participating not what the results were. So is a voluntary program. Yes without any metrics. Yeah i would like to think that they were also doing it because it was the right thing to do. But it also be naive. If i didn't think that much of the motivation was was governed by keeping the regulators offer back today the epa doesn't regulate pellets and in the almost thirty years since the agency told npr. It has brought just ten clean water act enforcement cases against facilities accused of spilling pellets. But how would anyone really know if pellets wurley if you head down to the gulf of mexico pellet manufacturers like chevron phillips say they're not I can tell you that it's not a problem here. At chevron phillips we have almost no kellett's leaving our sites. Jim becker is the vice president of sustainability for chevron phillips he met me in a warehouse after plant officials showed me ponds and drains. They said catch all the pellets. You've heard a little bit about operation. Clean sweep we've been practicing that Since the company was formed having no that that you had almost no hell it's leaving your site. I feel i feel confident. We have multiple layers of protection to prevent that without any data. It's hard to know. But then you could go look hacksaw some and if you're gonna hunt pellets a mile up texas bite. You're gonna wanna bring diane wilson the woman who tracked formosa's leaking pellets for five years.

Coming up next