Wednesday, April 09, 2008

“Shrimper” Diane Wilson Speaks in San Diego

Tells Moving Tale of Environmental Activism in Texas


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

When she first met Diane Wilson, former Congressional candidate Jeeni Criscenzo recalled when introducing her at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church April 5, she stumbled a bit when Wilson described herself as a “shrimper.” At first, Criscenzo said, she didn’t know what that meant — and Wilson said she wasn’t the only person who didn’t understand it. When she staged a hunger strike outside Du Pont’s world headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware to protest the chemical plant the company was building in Texas, Wilson said she’d been there for a week when the local paper finally wrote a story about her, headlined, “Shrimper on Hunger Strike.” “Next day,” she recalled, “I had a carload of fellows drive by and say, ‘Where’s that stripper on a hunger strike?’”

Wilson was born and raised in Seadrift, a tiny town in Texas on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Her father and grandfather were shrimpers — boat fishermen who sought out shrimp — and she took up the trade herself. Painfully shy as a girl — she recalled that she hated going to school or doing anything that put her in the company of other people — she found shrimping a congenial lifestyle because she could do it alone on her own boat and not have to deal with other humans. “Most shrimpers will admit they go to sea as much for the silence as for the catching of shrimp,” she wrote at the beginning of her memoir, An Unreasonable Woman — written in a highly colorful Southern tale-telling style that reads more like William Faulkner than your usual activist’s autobiography — though her shyness and solitary occupation didn’t keep her from getting married and having five children: four daughters and an autistic son.

What changed this reclusive fisherwoman into a highly charged activist able to speak before hundreds of people, stage hunger strikes and chain herself to the fences of chemical plants was her dawning realization of just how polluted the bay she fished was becoming. It manifested in how much harder she had to work to find shrimp: how many more times she had to cast her net in how many more places to catch enough to make the work economically viable. Then there were the blooms of algae that covered great areas on the water. “We would have a brown algae bloom, and then a green algae bloom,” Wilson recalled. “Then we’d have a red algae bloom, and if you’re on a shrimp boat, the fumes from a red algae bloom will make you sick.”

Then the dolphins in the bay started dying. They’d float up to the surface of the water, and at first the shrimpers and other fishermen working the bay wouldn’t know what they were. “We had scientists from all over the country trying to figure out why the dolphins were dying,” she said — the first time that the plight of Seadrift, Texas attracted any attention from the outside world. To make ends meet, in addition to shrimping Wilson had taken a job at a fish house — where she and fellow shrimpers would go to sell their catches — and she’d hear stories from other shrimpers who’d taken jobs at the chemical plants in the area when they couldn’t make enough money from the sea. “They would tell stories about dumping and discharges at night,” Wilson said. “But it was all just stories.”

It became more than “just stories” when, in the wake of the disaster at a Union Carbide-based plant in Bhopal, India in 1984, Congress passed a law demanding the release of something called a Toxic Waste Inventory. Its purpose was to rank all the counties in the U.S. by the share of pollution they were discharging into the environment. When Wilson found out — through a story from the Associated Press that her hometown paper published — that her little Calhoun County, Texas (population 10,000) was “number one in the nation in toxic waste disposal.” In her book, Wilson wrote, “The article ranked Calhoun County first nationally for toxics to the land, and said we accounted for 54 percent of the state’s total of a billion pounds, and our own Alcoa was the villainous plant that landed us there. … Besides that first-place prize, Calhoun was third for shipping toxins out, sixth for sticking them down wells, then 21st for flinging them in the air.”

Eventually Wilson called an environmental lawyer in Houston named Blackburn and said she’d organize a meeting in town and invite him to speak on what the community members could do about it. What she didn’t know was that a company called Formosa Plastics, based in Taiwan and founded by a self-made Chinese multimillionaire named Wang Yung-ching, who insisted on being addressed as “The Chairman,” was about to build Calhoun County’s largest plastics factory, on top of the ones they already owned and operated there. When she called the meeting, she said, “Within two days I had the bank president at the fish house. I had never seen the man in my life, and he wanted to know, ‘Diane, are you starting a vigilante group?’ Then I had the mayor’s secretary telling me I should get counseling. I had the county commissioner and the aide to our state senator, the chamber of commerce and the economic development task force, all telling me I shouldn’t hold this meeting.”

What Wilson eventually found out was that the entire leadership of the county had staked its economic future on Formosa. “They brought the worst polluter from Taiwan, who was so bad he’d been thrown out of his home country even though in Taiwan environmental activism was then illegal,” she said. “The Chairman said he was going to bring his plant either to Texas or Louisiana, so we gave him $250 million in tax abatements — at a time when our school district was so broke they were threatening to lay off nine teachers. They didn’t ask one single environmental question. We had U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, who was running for President at the time, pushing through their permits — and the head of Region 6 of the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] was Phil Gramm’s campaign manager, and he was rubber-stamping everything.”

The activist campaign Wilson had unwittingly stumbled into would cost her big-time. Her only supporters were her close friend Donna Sue, attorney Blackburn and Rick, whom she described as “a savvy environmentalist from Houston” — and even Rick advised her that the new Formosa plant was “a done deal” and she was wasting her time opposing it. “My husband — who’s now my ex-husband — was totally against me,” Wilson recalled. (In her book she called him “Baby” and described him basically as an annoying presence hovering on the fringes of her life.) Formosa reached into its deep pockets and hired both her brother and her cousin as part of their counter-campaign against her. She lost her job at the fish house and her house was strafed by a helicopter with someone with a gun inside. Worst of all, her boat was sabotaged and, in the scene she chose to open her book, she had to fight for her life in the dead of night to get it pumped out so she wouldn’t drown.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, at the very end of her campaign, her attorney, Blackburn, cut his own deal with Formosa, went on their payroll and urged Wilson to accept the terms he’d worked out with the company. “So I decided to kill myself,” Wilson recalled. “I’d read about Marilyn Monroe and thought, ‘She killed herself with sleeping pills and wine. I can do that.’ I took the pills and figured I’d just roll off the boat and become one with the water. But I just could not go to sleep. You take that many sleeping pills and you don’t go to sleep, but your lungs slow down and you think you’re going to suffocate and feel it all as you die. But I didn’t go to sleep, and the next morning I went back to it.”

Wilson made friends, too. A large number of current and former Formosa workers sought her out and told her horror stories of dead-of-night chemical dumps into the Gulf Coast bay. Many of the workers were already suffering from cancer and other diseases possibly caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at work, and they told Wilson not only that they believed their jobs had made them deathly ill but also how the company was trying to cut off their health coverage and deny them care just to save on its bottom line. As her knowledge of environmental science and law grew, her demands focused first on getting Formosa to do an environmental impact study for their nearly completed plant, then on having it install so-called “zero discharge” technology so the water going out of it would be as clean as the water coming in.

As Wilson’s knowledge base as an activist expanded, so did her tactics. When Rick, her environmentalist friend from Houston, told her the plant was a done deal, she recalled, “I had a thought that came off the top of my head. I said I was going to do a hunger strike, and he said, ‘Only people in California do hunger strikes.’ I knew enough about human nature to know that if I gave myself time to go to bed and think about it, I’d never do it. So I immediately called the one reporter I knew and told her I was doing a hunger strike. There was no phone on the boat, so nobody knew I was doing it — except the executives of the chemical plant, who’d come on the boat. One executive said, ‘You don’t know how stupid you look.’”

When Wilson’s friend got a Houston TV station to do a story on her hunger strike — with the local papers firmly in Formosa’s pocket she had to go out of town to get any press coverage at all — the owner of the boat she was staying on “came down from Houston and threw me off his boat. I had a day to get off the boat, so I marched straight down to the chemical plant and sat down on their front lawn. I had no money, little support and almost no media attention, but I basically got what I wanted in two weeks. When you do that level of commitment and put yourself on the edge, it’s a different type of energy. Gandhi called it ‘soul power.’ It’s what the planet has and what nature has. If you can align yourself with that energy, things happen.”