Mississippi River nurdle spill inspires effort in Congress to curb plastic pollution

Outrage over last month’s sprawling Mississippi River nurdle spill in New Orleans and the lax government response to it has inspired a bill in Congress to prevent similar incidents.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., had already introduced a wide-ranging bill to reduce plastic pollution, and last week he drafted a new one aimed specifically at prohibiting the discharge of plastic pellets, called nurdles, into rivers and oceans.

While plastic pellets, known as nurdles, pile up along the Mississippi River bank in Algiers Point on Aug. 17, 2020.

Tristan Baurick, Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate

“There should be no questions about who is responsible for the damage these discharges have already caused,” Udall said. “That is why my legislation would prohibit companies from discharging this dangerous waste into our environment â€" to put an end to the tragic spills we’ve seen in states like Louisiana.”

The dumping on Aug. 2 of about 740 million nurdles from a cargo ship moored in the Mississippi River in New Orleans raised the profile of a decades-old problem. More than 200,000 tons of the lentil-sized pellets, used in the manufacture of plastic products, enter the environment via accidents during loading, shipping and other stages of the vast plastics supply chain.

A recent University of Texas-led study found that almost every beach surveyed in Texas and Louisiana was littered with nurdles.


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Udall’s bill, called the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, would make it illegal to release nurdles and other pre-production plastic materials from plants and other sources associated with producing, molding, transporting and packaging plastic products.

The bill is an expansion of an already ambitious plastics reduction and recycling bill that Udall sponsored in February. Called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, the proposed legislation would phase out single-use plastic products, require manufacturers to support recycling programs, guide standardized recycling efforts across the country, and prohibit certain dining establishments from providing single-use plastic carryout bags, straws and utensils.

The Plastics Industry Association opposes Udall’s efforts to curb plastic use, calling them “more interested in garnering headlines than in finding solutions” and likely to harm the U.S. economy.

A plastic 'nurdle' taken from a water sample, held with forceps by Mark Benfield, a professor in the Dept. of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences in LSU's School for the Coast & Environment, in 2017.


The Louisiana Chemical Association, which represents the plastics industry in the state, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Udall’s bills.

Udall cited research that shows nurdles and other bits of plastic take decades to break down and are often mistaken by marine animals for food, leading to malnourishment and death. Insecticides and other human-made pollutants readily attach to plastic fragments, making them potentially toxic to fish, birds and the larger animals that eat them, possibly including human beings.

He said the New Orleans spill was complicated by confusion over which federal or state agency was required to respond. In the end, the U.S. Coast Guard, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies left it to the ship’s operator, France-based CMA CGM Group, voluntarily to hire a cleanup crew, which didn’t get to work until three weeks after the spill. By then, the nurdles had widely dispersed across riverbanks and likely made their way to the Gulf of Mexico, which already has one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution in the world.  

Nurdles pile up between rocks along the Mississippi River by the Chalmette Battlefield in Chalmette, La., Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. About a month ago, a shipping container spilled tons of nurdles in the Mississippi River. The shipping company hired a contractor to cleanup the small pieces of plastic. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)


CMA CGM has declined repeated requests for comment and updates on the large-scale cleanup, which appeared to have concluded early this month. This week, loosely organized volunteer groups were still using hand tools and buckets to clean up nurdles in Crescent Park and Algiers Point.

Investigators haven’t determined who is responsible for the spill and don't know yet if fines or other penalties will be issued.

“The burden has wrongly fallen on concerned citizens ... to clean up the mess that lax plastic producers and shippers dumped into their water,” Udall said.

If you ever want to mess with me, think again, pilgrim, 'cause I'm one tough hombre.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that has been fighting the proposed Formosa plastics complex in St. James Parish, called Udall’s bill an overdue check against plastic pollution.

“It’s sad we even have to make a law to stop people from doing this, and that our own state hasn’t done something about it,” said Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes, expressing some disappointment that it was a member of Congress from New Mexico and not Louisiana sponsoring the bill.

“On this issue, our state has gone limp,” she said.


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