What legal actions have focused on this plant?


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Tim Schütz's picture
June 7, 2022

In 2017, Diane Wilson, Dale Jurasek, and Ronnie Hamrick (another former wastewater manager) – organized as the Calhoun County Waterkeepers – filed a landmark citizens lawsuit against Formosa, bringing literally buckets of evidence forward, supporting allegations of rampant and illegal discharge of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay from Formosa’s Calhoun County plant. The case was led by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which describes the outcome as the largest settlement of a Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals (Berti Suman & Schade 2021). 

Legal scholars Suman and Schade (2021) argue that the case is unique due to the voluntary collection and presentation of a large quantity of evidence collected over an extended period of time that was accepted by both the judge and defendants without objections since neither the defendant nor “competent authorities” could provide competing evidence. The Waterkeepers collection and presentation of pollution data thus filled an “enforcement gap.” While noting the peculiarities of the US legal system that enables citizen lawsuits, Suman and Schade also argue that the Waterkeeper’s case could inspire monitoring activities in environmental justice communities around the world, helping to shift how citizen science can be used as evidence. 

The Waterkeepers legal win demonstrates the potential of law, and particularly citizens suits, in environmental governance, countering long-running cynicism about the role of the law and state writ large in redressing problems largely of their own making. It also, however, suggests that citizens suits have special power today, precisely because they are both in and slightly beyond the bounds of law, of and beyond the state. Through citizens suits, non-state actors can use state mechanisms to hold the state to account for failing to do its job. This depends, however, on sustained data collection, curation and presentation, and the infrastructure needed to support this. There are thus long backstories that need to be built – bodies of evidence, analysis and interpretation that can be brought to bear in work to turn “the state” around.