(© Kate McConnico, The Texas Observer)
Diane Wilson, shrimp fisherwoman turned activist from Seadrift, Texas, talks with Steve Curwood about her book, "An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas."
CURWOOD: On October 6, 11 workers were injured in an explosion at the Formosa Plastic Corporation plant in Point Comfort, Texas. In the past decade, the facility has been cited five times for safety violations. And last April, the state of Texas fined the plant $150,000 for fouling the air with toxic chemicals.
Years ago, when Diane Wilson found out she lived in the most polluted county in the nation, she turned her eyes and her anger towards Formosa Plastics, and she began what's become a 16-year protest of operations there. She's chronicled her experiences in a new book that, well, it reads faster than many adventure novels. It's called "An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas."
Diane Wilson, a fourth generation shrimp fisherwoman from Seadrift, Texas, joins me today from New York City. Thanks for being here today, Diane.
WILSON: Oh, I’m delighted to be here.
CURWOOD: You’ve got a job, five kids. What made you take an action to the point of hunger striking? What’s the event that pushed you over the edge?
WILSON: Well, there definitely was an event. But I’ve been shrimping since I’ve been eight years old so I’ve been on the water my entire life. And when I was 40 years old, shrimping was so bad I had to tie up my shrimp boat. And I was running a fish house and one of my shrimpers, I had about 20 shrimpers that I took care of down at the bay, and one them, he had three different types of cancer. He had these huge lumps all over his arms like tennis balls that were underneath his skin.
And he brought me an Associated Press story that said that Calhoun County, which is my county – and it’s a real tiny county, it’s a real rural county, I think we got 15,000 people in the entire county – we were the number one county in the nation for toxic disposal to the land. That information just blew my mind. You know, sometimes there’s just information that if you don’t do something with it, it changes who you are as a person. And so I did something I’d normally never do.
CURWOOD: And this Formosa Plastics, what, there’s a plant at Point Comfort, and that’s where the recent explosions occurred. What kind of things were coming out of that plant that you were worried about?
WILSON: This was a plant that has, from the very beginning, just spewed out vinyl chloride, ethelynedichloride, and chloroform benzene, and you name it. Matter of fact, I know one of their emissions was vinyl chloride and in one single day – you know, people find this hard to believe because vinyl chloride, if you release one pound of it, you have to report it to the EPA, that’s how serious vinyl chloride is – in one single day they released 148,000 pounds across the street from a schoolyard. In one day.
CURWOOD: What’s the EPA done about this kind of pollution?
WILSON: Well, I know when Formosa was coming in there was not a single word said about their environmental record. And I know at the time that Phil Gramm, who was at that time running for, he was thinking about running for president and was developing this war chest for his campaign contributions – and so he was getting all the credit for bringing Formosa Plastics and this huge expansion to the Texas Gulf Coast. And he was, like, guaranteeing that they wouldn’t have to do these long involved impact studies, that they could cut their permit time in half, they could give all these visas to their engineers. And the reason why Phil Gramm and them could guarantee it is because the head of the EPA was Phil Gramm’s campaign manager.
CURWOOD: Phil Gramm being the senator from Texas at the time.
WILSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
CURWOOD: Now, in your book you highlight the cronyism between local officials and the large corporations – large and small corporations – that do refining and chemical manufacture. After the explosion October 6, your county commissioner said it appeared there were no toxic materials that had been released into the air. How accurate do you think that is? I mean, do you believe him?
WILSON: No, I don’t believe him at all. And most of them, as much power as they have down there, is that no, the truth does not come out. And I might mention, when they said that there was no emissions, I do know the unit, I believe it was the glycol unit, that went out. Maybe three or four months ago, I talked to a former Formosa worker, and he had been in a glycol tank. And at the moment, both of his kidneys were gone, he was on dialysis, and his doctor was probably giving him seven months to live. This was a 32 year old man. And his coworker was dead from being in there. And this is that unit they were talking about that no, there was no emissions. I don’t believe a word that comes out of their mouths.
CURWOOD: There’s a story that you tell in your book where an EPA attorney thinks that you, Diane, are a woman Diana, who’s a lawyer for the Formosa company--
WILSON: Right, Diana Dutton. Matter of fact, I think she’s a pretty well-known lawyer.
CURWOOD: …And had a conversation. What did she tell you in that conversation before you finally disclosed you weren’t a chemical company lawyer?
WILSON: She thought I was Formosa’s lawyer so she was just talking about, “oh, how’s that discharge doing? How many gallons are you working up now? Do you have any problems with it?” And just on and on and on. And I’m like, what? And finally I was like, “um, ma’am, this is the Diane on the other side”. So apparently they were already discharging. They did not have a permit, the EPA knew it, the state environmental agency, and it did not matter.
And I was outraged. Because when the law doesn’t matter and they just use it wherever they will it just, it destroys your whole concept of your government and your agencies and what democracy…you know, it gets into much bigger issues. And that’s why I took my shrimp boat out and attempted to sink it. Because when you hear something like that that is so outrageous, I had to do something that would break this heavy shield over people that it doesn’t matter. It’s like yeah, it’s illegal. Yeah, we know it.
CURWOOD: So you tried to sink your sink boat? What were you trying to do? And what happened?
WILSON: Well, it was, the discharge was illegal. They were discharging probably five million gallons of wastewater a day. I was in defiance. I was going to take the thing I held most precious, which was my shrimp boat, it was the way I made a living, I was going to take it and I was going to sink in right on top of that discharge. Because for me it was an act of defiance over what they did to that bay, the crime they did to that bay. So I was gonna leave kind of a monument, and my boat was gonna be the monument.
So I got a shrimper to pull me out in the dead of night. And we were sneaking around to Formosa’s discharge and this crazy freak storm came up. I mean, talk about wild. And when I got around to sink it there was three boatloads of Coast Guard. There were these two big cruisers out there and they were saying I was a terrorist on the high seas and 19 years in the federal penitentiary and $500,000 fine. And I was like, I don’t care. I was sinking that boat. And they confiscated my boat.
But something I totally didn’t expect is the fishermen who had been up to that point so depressed, you know, they just don’t believe anything will save them anymore, they were so taken with what I tried to do, and what the Coast Guard were doing, they took their boats out there in the middle of that bay. And it was so rough it could have sunk their boats, that’s how bad it was. And they started doing this demonstration out in the middle of the bay. And the Coast Guard went nuts. So they were zipping all over that bay, trying to cite the shrimpers with their boats.
And Formosa was so sick and tired of my antics and all those boats out there and the Coast Guard that they said, “what will it take to shut you up?” And I said, “well, it’s your discharge, which is recycling of your waste stream.” And so that’s how I got the first plant to do zero-discharge of their waste stream.
CURWOOD: And they do it to this day?
WILSON: Well…(LAUGHS). I got 33 percent of their waste stream recycled.
CURWOOD: There’s something else that I want you to explain to me. There’s that quote where you say the first bad thing about working with two men, is that they’re two men. You’re referring to are your lawyer and activist friends. And then you go on to say, the next worse thing is that their war playing was liable to be as different as heck from mine, and it was. Rick believed in hand-to-hand combat and gouging the opponent’s eyes out, and Blackburn believed in guerilla warfare. What did you believe in?
WILSON: I believed in nonviolent civil disobedience because I think your technique is your path. You know, that’s my foundation. Like when I was a little girl and I’d go to the bay, I could see her. She was a woman. She was as clear as my mother. I could go down there and I could see this woman and she was just all over that bay. She had this personality, it was like walking into a room that’s full of perfume. There’s no way you could miss her. And so I have always had this real mystical vision of being a part of the bay, and so my technique has been this nonviolence, and I truly believe to make change you have to put yourself out there. I think that has to do with commitment.
CURWOOD: Diane Wilson is the author of "An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas." Diane, thanks for joining us today.
WILSON: Well, I can’t think of a better place to be.
CURWOOD: By the way, Diane Wilson won't be going home anytime soon. If she sets foot back in Texas, she’ll be going to jail. In 2003, Ms. Wilson was convicted and sentenced to four months for trespassing after she scaled a tower at a Dow Chemical plant in Seadrift, Texas. After chaining herself down, Diane flew a banner demanding the company be held responsible for the deaths of thousands of people who died in Bhopal, India when a chemical plant exploded there in 1984.
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