June 2020

People say you’ve got to be young to be an activist. When I started, I was 40 years old. No age is too old. — Diane Wilson, retired as a shrimper, but still an activist

If you drive southeast from my home in Austin, Texas, you first glide through rolling hills and farmlands, but the landscape gradually flattens out into the grasslands of the coastal plains, leading you right to the bayous of the Texas Gulf … and a whole other state.

Here, the stereotypical Texas image of cowboys on horseback gives way to fishing boats and life on the water. For generations, the sparkling bays and nutrient-rich estuaries that indent this long stretch along the Gulf of Mexico have provided shrimpers, oysterers, crabbers, and other commercial fishing families with both a working-class living and a valued lifestyle. The work is hard, income ebbs more than it flows, big storms happen, and then there are the alligators and snakes that also call these interconnected waterways home. Yet, over the decades, the hardy people of the water have figured out how to share and sustain the space.

And so they did, until the 1980s. That’s when a strange, invasive critter appeared at Lavaca Bay near the little town of Point Comfort. From there, the new species spread its spawn until it dominated lives, the environment, and the economy. According to outraged locals, it poisoned the waters, killed whole seasons of shrimp harvest, decimated other sea life, and devastated local fishing communities. The marauder was not some gilled monster from the deep, but a massive, ever-expanding $37 billion behemoth that is world’s sixth largest petrochemical producer: Formosa Plastics Corporation.

Lights, cameras, action!

Point Comfort is the setting for an epic, true-life drama of a 30-year struggle between malicious corporate power and tenacious human rebelliousness that is still playing out. You want bigger-than-Hollywood pizzazz? This unscripted narrative includes:

  • A treacherous Taiwanese billionaire
  • Panic in Calhoun County
  • The black-hatted rebel at The Hideout bar
  • A stormy night on Lavaca Bay
  • A plague of nurdles
  • The shocking decision by a Reagan-appointed judge
  • An encounter at Poor Boy’s Bait shop, and …
  • “The crazy lady,” a woman who would not back off, shut up, be intimidated, or quit.

Let’s start with her.

Cartoon by Brian Duffy. Click for larger view.

Diane Wilson is a shrimper by birth, trade, temperament, and spirit. She is the fourth generation of a fishing family that has worked the Gulf waters for some 140 years. Now retired, for years she operated the SeaBee, her own 42-foot shrimp boat out of San Antonio Bay and ran a fish house, Froggy’s Shrimp Co.

Her connection to the water is not just commercial, but also spiritual. Last fall, when Lowdown publisher Jay Harris and I visited Diane on a dock in Seadrift, TX, (population 1,500), she confided that, “I think I’m a little bit of a mystic.” From the age of 4 or 5, she told us, she loved coming down to the bay because “I could see her.” Her child’s mind saw these abundant waters as a woman, very old, who spoke to her and made her feel comfortable. “She was like a grandmother,” Diane told us, “and she liked me, and she liked me to come to visit her. I never forgot the feeling of what she was like. So she’s family.”

Listen to Diane describe her relationship with the water. 1:09

Some 35 years later, in 1989, her love for that woman of the sea turned Diane into a force-of-nature environmental activist. She was raising five kids, running Froggy’s, and minding her own business when a newspaper item stunned her. According to the EPA’s newly public “Toxic Release Inventory,” Diane’s Calhoun County was ranked number one in the whole nation for “on-site land releases” of toxins: 454 million pounds. The county also placed in the top 10 counties in the nation for toxic air emissions and injection wells–poisons pumped into the environment by the likes of Formosa, Exxon, Union Carbide, Alcoa, and other factories perched along the coast.

Outraged by these facts–and that not a single local, state, or federal official had made a public peep about this gross contamination–the shrimper lady morphed into “the crazy lady,” as Formosa executives soon dubbed her. Realizing that the wastewater being pumped into the bays by these plants might account for the dwindling shrimp harvests and other marine-life die-offs, she called a public meeting so the fishing community could raise questions. “I had never had a meeting before, never spoke in public. I was extremely introverted.”

And naive. “All hell broke loose,” she vividly recalls. The entire county establishment erupted in panicked condemnation of her “meddling”: Officials banned the meeting from City Hall, the area’s squirrely state senator went on TV to blast the gathering, and local powers phoned her brothers to “simmer your sister down.” Diane recalled that the bank president–“in a three-piece suit and shiny shoes”–stormed into Froggy’s one morning, barking: “Are you trying to roast industry alive?”

Diane had discovered that merely questioning authority spooks it–and this bunch of authorities had reason to panic. The politicians, chemical regulators, and moneyed powers had quietly struck a dirty deal with Wang Yung-ching, CEO of Formosa Plastics and one of the richest men in Taiwan. Wang and Formosa were ruthless polluters and plunderers around the globe, and in the late ’80s, Wang snookered the locals into letting his Point Comfort polyvinyl chloride complex expand from merely huge to monstrous.

This was to be the biggest chemical plant expansion in Texas history, eventually tripling Formosa’s discharges of contaminants into Lavaca Bay. And the people were not to be told, much less consulted. Until … here came this nosey shrimper.

Demonized and ostracized as a hysterical, job-killing ignoramus, Diane did not wither. Feistiness is at her core, along with smarts, a stout sense of fairness, and a fierce dedication to fishing families and the waters they live on. The more the elites trashed her, the deeper she dug into the issues, the corruption, the law, and the fight.

Perseverance matters

👇 DO SOMETHING 👇

#StopFormosa in Louisiana. Formosa wants a new $9 billion factory along the Mississippi River! The company may have settled with Diane and Waterkeepers in Texas, but the plastics predator doesn’t rest. Now it is maneuvering to build an even bigger complex in St. James Parish, LA, which already ranks in the the top 100 US counties for toxic air emissions and is so polluted by industry that it’s known as “Cancer Alley.” The people of St. James say enough is enough.

When the Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality issued Formosa a permit to release carcinogens such as benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide into the air near parish communities and an elementary school, Rise St. James and a consortium of allies challenged the permit in court. You can help: Go to StopFormosa.org for info and follow Rise St. James and Louisiana Bucket Brigade on Facebook.

Get inspired by Diane Wilson’s memoir: An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, TX.

Battling for justice is not for the meek or impatient. Shedding her initial introversion, Diane got in Formosa’s face at that first meeting and has stayed there for 30 years, giving and taking punches, working inside and outside the law, falling back and circling around, and always finding new ways to push ahead:

She constantly cultivates allies. Many Formosa workers have come to agree with her, for hundreds of them are displaced or part-time shrimpers who have witnessed Formosa’s disregard for environmental laws. Many also fear for their own health, as corporate managers demand more and faster output of chemicals, falsify safety reports, and ignore workplace dangers. Diane also gained the trust of the area’s close-knit community of Vietnamese shrimpers, helping them get tests showing that they had high levels of mercury and endocrine disrupters–poisons absorbed from factory pollutants. And she enlisted independent scientists alarmed by the toxic tonnage of Formosa’s tiny plastic pellets and powders flushed illegally into the waters and then up the food chain.

 She shows up. When Formosa goes to an agency, court, or legislative hearing to renew permits or win some corporate break, there’s Diane, smiling and informed, ready to challenge the corporate lawyers on their deceits, omissions, and past performances.

She goes public. Diane has done countless rallies, interviews, press briefings, and conferences across the US and beyond. She’s written books and articles, been jailed for public protests, and mounted three attention-raising hunger strikes. (Full disclosure: When I was Texas ag commissioner, I joined her in the first of these hunger protests.)

A dose of creative insurrection also helps. In 1994 Diane admitted to herself that while her own fishing community knew she was right, they were not rallying to join her. “They didn’t believe you could fight city hall,” she says, “didn’t think anything made a difference.” She needed a defiant action–beyond statistics or another speech–that would “break the indifference,” something the people of the bay would instinctively grasp. Aha, she thought, I’ll sink my shrimp boat near the huge pipe that discharges 5 million gallons of Formosa’s wastewater into the bay–every day. The water near the discharge pipe is shallow, so the SeaBee‘s mast would stick out for all to see as “permanent monument” to shrimper outrage and the suffering of that old woman of the bay. Scuttling her vessel was not just a financial sacrifice. “I loved that boat,” Diane told us, “It’s like a farmer loving his farm.” Every fishing family would understand how painful this action was.

Diane tells the story of that fateful night out on the bay. 4:36

She pulled the SeaBee‘s engine, painted the boat “virgin white,” and persuaded a fellow shrimper to tow her toward the discharge pipe. They set out at dark, through howling wind and rain. Alas, Formosa had hired a snoop (her own cousin, it turned out!) and so, near midnight, the Coast Guard roared in with three vessels to stop her before she reached the discharge area: “They had all these guys with megahorns and ropes, jumping all over the place trying to lasso my boat. They finally did–and said they were going to charge me with terrorism.”

Wilson was locked in her cabin that night while about 10 guardsmen camped on the SeaBee‘s deck, waiting for morning. Then, just at dawn, a joyful noise arose–a flotilla of shrimp boats was circling the SeaBee in a raucous show of solidarity! “I looked out the window. All of the guys, the shrimpers, had gotten in their boats, had their hands out the window like this,” she said as she raised her fist in salute. “They had never been like that for me. …[It was] a spontaneous action in support of what I was doing.”

The pellet posse rides

Even without an actual sinking, the SeaBee action changed the dynamic of the pollution fight. Formosa’s phalanx of execs and operatives now realized that Diane was not to be shooed away. Even worse from their perspective, she was no longer alone. She formed a small environmental group (her board was “poor, divorced women” whom the company couldn’t intimidate). The general public started paying attention, and even workers at the plant, appalled by Formosa’s practices, began to feed her information and tips.

And then, in 2009, Dale Jurasek called. Diane had heard of Dale, a longtime wastewater foreman at the plant. After bravely turning whistleblower in the ’90s, he’d been harshly retaliated against and even beaten up, so he was not a trusting soul. He told Diane to meet him midday at, get this, The Hideout–a bar two counties away. He waited for her in a back corner, a dark presence in a black cowboy hat. First thing, he demands to check her purse. “He thinks I’m wired, a spy for the company. So I just hand it over and say, ‘Hop to it.'”

Enjoying Hightower? How about a weekly email that gives you the full scoop?

Satisfied, Jurasek proceeded to educate Diane about an out-of-control plague of nurdles spewing from Formosa’s Point Comfort rainwater outfalls and into the Gulf. “Nurdle” is industry’s cute, harmless-sounding name for the lentil-sized, milky-white polyvinyl chloride pellets that Formosa fabricates by the trillions. Corporations then turn this raw plastic into the zillions of bottles, bags, straws, raincoats, et cetera and ad nauseum now contaminating the globe.

The plastic pellets contain endocrine disrupters that can pervert the sex hormones of fish, frogs, humans, and other animals. In addition, as Texas Monthly reported last October, the pellets also become “vehicles for toxins and pathogens … accumulating contaminants such as industrial chemicals and pesticides … [that] can contain concentrations of toxins up to 10 million times greater than what’s found in seawater.” Sea life mistake the tiny pellets for food … and up the food chain the toxins go.

Naturally, Formosa denied it was spewing any pellets–but there they were, jillions of them, easily visible in the water, seabed, grasses, roadsides… and inside the guts of the area’s aquatic life. Over the next few years, Diane and Jurasek alerted state and federal regulators–including the EPA and the FBI–to the reality in plain sight. But nada. In 2012, they and a small band of worker- activists aligned with the Waterkeeper Alliance to add some national oomph to their push for regulators to act. Still, nothing. Or worse. In 2015, Texas water authorities ruled that the pellet release would indeed violate the law, and Formosa was legally required to self- report any violation. But since the company had not done so, there must have been no releases. Kafka himself couldn’t have conjured such an absurdity!

That’s when Diane and the Waterkeepers became a citizens’ pellet posse. Several times a week for four years, they waded near and kayaked around the plant’s outfalls and Lavaca Bay, photographing pellets and scooping them into sandwich bags they painstakingly labeled with date, time, location, and wind direction. They also hooked up with the savvy, scrappy lawyers at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Eventually, with the evidence they had gathered, they bypassed the regulators by filing a citizens lawsuit in federal court.

In spring 2019, their case came to trial, presided over by a Ronald Reagan appointee, Judge Kenneth Hoyt. There was the usual legal back and forth, but the evidence was overwhelming: 30 bins containing the 26 million pellets Diane and the Waterkeeper crew had collected and hauled to the courtroom. In June, Hoyt ruled for the citizens, calling Formosa “a serial offender” guilty of “enormous” violations and chastising regulators as inept or unwilling to do their public duty. Fearing that the judge would follow his ruling with the stiffest of penalties, Formosa came to the table to settle with Diane and the Waterkeepers.

Last December, the judge approved a $50 million settlement, the largest for a citizens’ Clean Water Act suit in US history. The money is mostly designated for local environmental cleanup and enhancement projects and for a fishing cooperative to help locals restore their industry. Most significantly, Formosa must also comply with the judge’s order for “zero emissions” of plastic pellets. And, rather than trusting the corporation or submissive regulators, the settlement empowers Waterkeeper to independently monitor Formosa’s compliance.

Stick-to-it-iveness

Of course, profiteers don’t quit scheming, so vigilance is essential. But this victory is momentous, setting a powerful precedent for pollution fights across the country. Finally, after 30 years, Diane Wilson was able to say something she doubted she’d get to utter in her lifetime: “It feels like justice.”

None of the money goes to her, not even a token for three decades of unpaid work challenging mighty Formosa.

“I figured when I was doing this,” she told Jay and me, “you either could spend your time administrative, raising funds, or you could do action. I went for the action.”

Indeed, for agitators like her, there’s joy in the fight, and the reward is knowing you did your best and stood up for what’s right. On our last day with Diane, she took us to a spit of sand not far from Formosa’s plant to show us a mess of plastic pellets that still litter the water’s edge. Floating about 30 yards away was a small building with a big sign: “Poor Boy Bait.” As we looked, a 30-something man popped out of the shop and strode toward us, hollering, “Hey, are you Diane?”

Oh, Lord, I thought, here we go.

“My name’s Tommy,” he said as he reached out to shake Diane’s hand. “And I just want to thank you for all you’re doing. And my children thank you, too.”

print
Psst! The print edition of my Lowdown newsletter is just $15 a year. Subscribe now-- and support the populist rebellion!
x
3
Articles Remaining