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Texas regulators turn away from proposed microplastics pollution ban

Environmentalists say plastic pellets, used to produce a variety of products, are often found in the bellies of fish and are also swallowed by turtles and birds.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Over the objections of environmental groups, a Texas agency Wednesday adopted state water quality standards that left out a proposed ban on microplastic pollution.

Plastics are everywhere in modern life. Derived from fossil fuels, they are used to make foam cups, restaurant trays, auto parts, food wrappers, artificial Christmas trees, clothes and much more. And they’ve been found, on a microscopic level, in human digestive tracts.

For all their ubiquity, plastics in their pre-production form are only a bit bigger than grains of sand. They are 1-to-5-millimeter pellets of resin, called “nurdles,” that are melted down by manufacturers to make their various products.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, long criticized by green groups for its perceived business-friendly regulations, surprised the petrochemical industry in March when it proposed a revamp of state water standards that would have required plant operators to prevent the discharge of nurdles visible to the naked eye.

Led by the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, environmental groups cheered the move.

Environmentalists say nurdles are often found in the bellies of fish and are also swallowed by turtles and birds.

“There’s a common misconception that nurdles, or pellets, are chemically inert, meaning inactive,” Ava Ortiz, microplastics fellow at Bayou City Waterkeeper, a Houston nonprofit, said Wednesday in a meeting of the TCEQ’s commissioners.

“But that is far from true,” she continued. “Nurdles act as toxic sponges. Additives or pollutants and bacteria can adhere and become more concentrated on the surface of nurdles. … Additives can also leach into their surrounding environment polluting water quality, contaminating soil and putting an organism at risk when ingested.”

The Texas Chemical Council, made up of 70 companies that operate 200 facilities in Texas, protested in public comments that the ban “would set a precedent exceeding any other state or federal regulation.” And its members complained that equipment upgrades needed to comply could cost some as much as $25 million.

Despite their pushback, some members of the council say they are already addressing nurdle pollution.

Dow Chemical, which operates massive plants on the Texas coast in Freeport, 60 miles south of Houston, is a partner in Operation Clean Sweep, a program sponsored by the American Chemical Council meant to keep plastic pellets, flakes and powder out of ocean water.

Dow says in adherence to the program it will annually report the number of times it releases and does not clean up microplastics of more than 0.5 kilograms, equal to about 25,000 nurdles, from any of its plants around the world.

“Since the launch of the global reporting requirements at the beginning of 2020, there have been zero incidents that resulted in unrecovered releases of more than 0.5 kg to outside Dow facilities,” the company boasts.

In the end, the TCEQ sided with industry.

It removed the ban from a final draft of its water standards it adopted Wednesday. But the agency’s chairman Jon Niermann indicated he is open to some form of microplastics regulation.

“I do think this is an important issue and we need to continue to work on it,” Niermann said in the livestreamed meeting.

Alex Ortiz, water resources specialist for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, told the TCEQ’s commissioners Wednesday there is widespread support for a ban on nurdle pollution among Texans, as more than 500 Sierra Club members submitted comments endorsing the proposal, with many calling for it to be strengthened.

He also assured the TCEQ it has authority under the Texas Water Code to clamp down on nurdles.

“There seems to be a myth that this commission is somehow lacking in authority regarding the ability to actually regulate this plastic pollution. There need not be a specific directive from either the federal government or the state Legislature for this commission to adopt such a regulation,” he said.

Companies polluting Texas waterways with the plastic pellets have been taken to court by environmental groups.

In 2019, Formosa Plastics Corp. agreed to pay a $50 million settlement after San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper sued it, claiming it had violated the Clean Water Act and its TCEQ-issued water discharge permit for its plant in Point Comfort on Lavaca Bay, 100 miles northeast of Corpus Christi.

The environmental group’s members had no trouble finding evidence: For four years they kayaked in the bay, scooping up from the water and along shorelines plastic pellets that had been discharged from Formosa’s plant.

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