For being the self-proclaimed “Jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast,” Formosa Plastics isn’t doing so hot. Lucky for us, Hurricane Rita, initially packing 185 mph winds and headed straight for Formosa’s ill-prepared and sprawling 1,800-acre PVC plant in Point Comfort, Texas, decided to turn north at the last minute. Formosa dodged a bullet.
No bullet-dodging last week: On October 6, at 3:30pm and after 30 minutes of obnoxious chemical fumes that drove Point Comfort citizens into the streets to wonder what ill wind was blowing their way, Formosa Plastics blew, sending a Nagasaki-style mushroom cloud and three, four, and five explosions thundering over the blistering Texas landscape. Formosa Plastics and neighboring Alcoa plant workers ran for their lives, many throwing themselves into nearby Lavaca Bay, host to one of the nation’s largest underwater mercury Superfund sites. But for those workers, the mercury was the lesser of two evils. The worst was Formosa’s explosion, which sent 11 workers to the hospital, two with serious burns.
Formosa Plastics’ self-congratulatory “jewelness” has nothing to do with its hourly plant workers or Calhoun County’s commercial and sports fishermen or the once jewel-like bays. That’s just Y.C. Wang, aka Chairman Wang, aka El Presidenti, patting Formosa on the back. And he can do that because he owns the company, part of his family dynasty dating back to the late ’40s and the good ole Taiwan Kuomintang days.
You gotta know that it’s important for Chairman Wang to have one “jewel” of a plant, because his other U.S. plants, in Delaware, Illinois, and Louisiana, have either blown up or had serious environmental problems. (In Delaware, the courts finally served a summons by dropping it into the plant from the governor’s helicopter; Formosa wouldn’t let them onto the grounds to serve the summons.) So for everybody’s peace of mind, and chiefly the chairman’s, it’s important that the parent company claim that Formosa Plastics Texas is “the Jewel” they built from scratch, ’cause the rest of their U.S. plants — why, those was just junk plants they bought and made profitable.
But high-sounding labels mean nothing in a county that once ranked No. 1 in the nation for toxic disposal, and where the recent explosion is an increasingly familiar sight. Trophies mean nothing, either. In 1991, a few scant months after receiving the “Safest Plant in Texas” award from the Texas Chemical Council, Union Carbide Seadrift (a few miles southwest of Formosa) blew up, killing one worker and injuring 32 others. Debris as big as automobiles was hurled into the night.
Formosa Plastics Texas, the shiny new chemical plant on the block and the pride of Texas politicians, businessmen, and economic development types, was heralded as the county’s savior (never mind the tax abatements) when construction got under way on the mammoth $1.3-billion-plus PVC plant. But by the mid ’90s it had already earned the rank of worst among a dozen Texas PVC-related facilities. In 1991, Formosa was fined a record $3.7 million by the EPA for hazardous waste violations related to the discovery of massively contaminated groundwater under the facility. Violations included failures to comply with the most rudimentary hazardous-waste regulation — storing waste in leaking containers, lack of adequate employee training, and illegal discharges of wastes.
In 1990, the company was fined $244,00 for 54 water-quality violations, then again in 1992, after a ten thousand pound release of hydrochloride gas that sent neighbors and cows bawling into the night, Formosa was fined $330,000 for worker-safety violations. OSHA inspection found that vinyl chloride levels were not monitored, flammable liquids were not handled properly, and general procedure for maintenance and repair were not followed.
In July ’97, two workers were found asphyxiated and floating in a barge of EDC (ethylene dichloride) at the Formosa loading docks. In December ’98, an explosion containing EDC injured 26 workers, rattled windows 35 miles away, and contaminated a back waterway into the bay with levels up to 400 ppm of EDC. In April 2004, Formosa’s plant in Illinois exploded, killing 6 workers and injuring many more.
Vinyl chloride causes liver, stomach, and brain cancer. An abnormally high number of spontaneous abortions have been reported among the spouses of workers exposed to vinyl chloride, and increased rates of birth defects have been reported in areas where vinyl chloride plants are located. In spite of those alarming findings, little is done to protect the health of the people. In the ’80s, when Formosa released 140,000 pounds of vinyl chloride in one day across the street from an elementary school, the PVC plant received less than a slap on the wrist, fined far less money than one unit made in a single day.
And regardless of Formosa’s assurances of “no toxic emissions” to the surrounding community, it is worth noting that in 2000 the U.S. EPA criminal division and the FBI subpoenaed Formosa’s wastewater documents for suspected criminal misconduct of the plant’s wastewater reports. But I’ll be darned if the investigation wasn’t suddenly dropped after a record 8,000 pages, 12 years in the making.
Sometimes our so-called “jewels” need the equivalent of a Texas-luvin’ death penalty. Adios, Formosa.