The Clean Water Act allows private groups to file lawsuits in federal court to enforce its provisions. The law requires private groups to first file a notice to sue, and then 60 days later, they can bring a lawsuit in court.
The potential penalties could be high. A similar private lawsuit over pellet pollution involving a Formosa Plastics Corp. USA plant in Point Comfort, Texas, resulted in the company paying a $50 million settlement in 2019, the largest private CWA settlement at the time.
In a statement, Styropek said it's evaluating allegations from the environmental groups.
"Styropek is committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner and in compliance with our permits, and has been since it purchased the Monaca facility in October of 2020," said Gina Hogue, the responsible care and environment coordinator for BVPV Styrenics LLC, which is a unit of Styropek.
"We are aware of the serious allegations being made by PennEnvironment, many of which are inconsistent with our operations, our products, and our testing and permit compliance," she said. "We are in the process of evaluating those allegations."
Styropek, which is owned by Mexican conglomerate Alpek SAB de CV, bought the facility in 2020 when it acquired the expandable styrenics business of Nova Chemicals Co.
The environmental groups said the Monaca facility makes up to 123,000 tons of EPS a year. On its website, Styropek says it's the largest EPS maker in the Americas.
The environmental groups said they reported their findings to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and that the discharges have been corroborated by DEP inspections and by Styropek consultants.
The DEP issued the company a general notice of violation in December 2022.
The environmental groups said their investigation has found "copious nurdle accumulations" along the shoreline and on bordering vegetation, creek banks and in river sediment.
They said Styropek's Clean Water Act permit prohibits it from discharging any solids, including pellets, into surrounding waterways.
David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said he and the waterkeeper team continued to see large amounts of pellets when they checked the area Oct. 2.
The groups said they are concerned about plastic pellets acting as sponges to attract other chemicals and getting into food chains.
"Given the growing data that plastics and microplastics pose a significant threat to public health and our environment, Styropek's illegal discharges of plastic beads are an egregious breach of the public's trust," Masur said.
Hulton VanTassel said the groups began their river patrols to establish baseline data for how much plastic was in the Ohio River and tributaries before Shell started operations.
She said the groups want Styropek to both stop ongoing discharges, including halting production until they can control the leaks, and to develop a plan for cleaning up past pollution from the facility's discharges.
"We are just beginning to understand the long-term health impacts of ingesting plastics, and we can't allow polluters to use us and our water resources as guinea pigs," Hulton VanTassel said.
In their letter to Styropek, the groups say that based on their investigations for the past year, they believe that the facility has been discharging pellets every day, and said their legal notice could cover violations dating back five years.
Attorneys for the National Environmental Law Center in Boston, which is assisting the Pennsylvania groups, said penalties could be as high as $64,000 a day.
The announcement comes a week after two plastics industry groups announced an enhanced version of their voluntary Operation Clean Sweep pellet control program, and as members of Congress have introduced legislation asking the Environmental Protection Agency to take on a larger role.