Washington — The shale-gas fueled boom in resin production in the United States should require much tougher emission rules for plastic facilities, including zero discharge standards for pellets, an environmental coalition told the federal government July 23.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and more than 270 other groups filed a formal petition with the Environmental Protection Agency.
They argued that because current regulations were set in the 1980s and early 1990s they're not capable of handling current levels of plastic production.
The petition asks for new Clean Water Act regulations requiring zero emissions of plastic pellets into waterways from resin plants, no detectable emissions of benzene and dioxin and stricter rules on a host of other chemicals.
The petitioners pointed to a June 27 federal court ruling against a Formosa Plastics Corp. resin plant in Point Comfort, Texas, as evidence that current rules are not strict enough. In that ruling U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt wrote that Formosa's discharges of pellets into waterways amounted to "enormous" violations of its permits under the Clean Water Act.
"We need rigorous new rules to counter this growing threat to public health, marine life and the climate," said Julie Teel Simmonds, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the petition.
But the American Chemistry Council rejected the need for new regulations and said the Clean Water Act already sets strict limits on discharges of specific chemicals.
"Discharges to waterways are already highly regulated under federal law," ACC said. "EPA already has a variety of regulatory tools and should focus its efforts through existing mechanisms."
Washington-based ACC also said its members must follow its Responsible Care initiative, which requires continuous improvement in environmental management, including emissions and discharges.
ACC also encourages its members to participate in the voluntary Operation Clean Sweep program, designed to keep plastic pellets, flake and powder out of the waterways and environment.
But the environmental groups argued that with North American plastic production set to increase by 35 percent by 2025, driven by cheap shale gas feedstock, tougher rules are needed. Pollution prevention technologies have also advanced since the federal regulations were last updated, they said.
"The Effluent Limitation Guidelines and Standards for the plastics industry are largely unchanged from their original adoption in the 1970s and 1980s," the petition said. "In the meantime, plastic production and pollution have exploded, and monitoring and treatment technologies have advanced. An update is long overdue and necessary."
The Waterkeeper Alliance, one of the groups signing the petition, said federal efforts are needed to help address what it calls the "growing plastic pollution crisis," including from microplastics in waterways.
"The United States has traditionally been a global leader in addressing water pollution challenges, and we have the ways and means to combat this global epidemic," said Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance. "It's time for the EPA to make meaningful efforts."
The groups said that right now stormwater runoff from plastics facilities are governed by general multisector EPA permits or best management practices contained in state-issued industrial permits. But they are calling for the EPA to develop specific stormwater runoff regulations for plastic facilities, as they said it does for other sectors such as petroleum refining.
It claimed that the best management practices, which typically include measures like using swales or filtration devices to manage runoff, have been "wildly ineffective at preventing plastic particles produced at plastics facilities from entering the nation's waterways."
In their lengthy petition, they pointed to things like a California requirement for one-millimeter mesh screens as an "easy and low-cost solution" to help reduce plastic pellet runoff. They urged more widespread adoption of technologies like membrane filtration and advanced oxidation processes to treat or remove other pollutants.
The groups also argued there is an environmental justice component to plastic pollution issues, with petrochemical plants in the Gulf Coast disproportionately located near low-income and minority communities.
Simmonds said there is no specific deadline for the EPA to respond, although it's required to rule on petitions in a timely fashion. She said the groups will also be meeting with members of Congress to discuss their petition.