A woman from the Texas coast discovered civil disobedience was the only way to change things. She put her own boat on the line and inspired others to join her for the sake of Lavaca Bay.
Editor's note: Diane Wilson of Seadrift, Texas, is a fourth generation shrimper. In March of 1994, she took direct action against Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese company, that had begun dumping toxins into Lavaca Bay. After her arrest and subsequent activism, she and others who organized to protect the region held the company to their goal: zero-discharge. Wilson tells her story — or part of it, as her activism has persisted — in the Texas Legacy Project, documenting conservation in the state of Texas. The project’s ambitious oral history has been excerpted in a new book from Texas A&M Press. The entire collection is available online. Thanks to editors David Todd and David Weisman for permission to post from Wilson’s interview.
Texas Legacy Project
In 1989, Diane Wilson learned that Calhoun County, Texas, her home, topped the nation in toxic emissions; she turned to direct action then and has persisted for twenty years.
I guess all of my work in the environmental field comes from my identity with the water. I’m a fourth-generation fisherwoman and I have spent my entire life on the bay. And when I was very young, I would go shrimping with my dad. I was probably five years old and I can remember coming to the bay, and the bay was a woman. I could see her and I could feel her personality. She was like a grandmother and she had this long gray hair, she had this long dress that kind of flowed out into the water. And when I was a kid, she was real to me. She had this personality of an old wise woman. And she really loved me….
When I was young, we would always spend the night out on the boat right before a “norther” storm would come blowing in. You’d be out there on the bay, on that old creaking boat (and I always slept on top of the cabin of the boat), and the whole boat would rock. Sometimes I would have a quilt and the wind would be blowing so hard it would take my quilt and it’d just pitch it out into the middle of the bay.
I think my favorite time was when the water was rough. I remember one time I was shrimping and my net got caught in the block of one of the ropes. So I had to scale the mast pole with a knife in my teeth and get right to the top and that mast and the whole boat was rocking and you could just see all of that water. And it was this gray water. And it was just wild in the rain and I have never felt that free in my life. It just conveys its power and this feeling of freedom. I’ve seen it where it was slick calm and it was like a mirror, but I guess my favorite has always been just seeing its power, because it talks very loud.
After a long battle against Formosa Plastics and their permit for a new facility that was going to pollute our bay, I had filed this appeal in Washington with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and, legally, I had stopped their permit. They could not move until a Washington federal judge decided whether they could have a discharge.
So, one day I was on the phone, talking with the EPA lawyer (and my name is Diane and Formosa’s lawyer’s name is Diane). And so, the EPA lawyer thought I was Formosa’s lawyer. And here she was, on the phone with me, just discussing about their wastewater discharge and how it was doing and how many gallons were being discharged . . . and I was like, “What?”
“You’re not supposed to be discharging anything. I got it blocked.” And yet they were still discharging. The state knew it. EPA knew it. Formosa knew it. It was just the public that didn’t know it.
The reality is: whatever they’re going to do, they are going to do. It does not matter how many laws they break. That’s just the reality. That’s what it boils down to.
C&EN Part of the 1,600-acre Formosa Plastics petrochemical plant in Port Comfort, Texas. I could not stand to just let it go like this. And you have to do something to grab people and say, “This is not right!” ….
And so just off the top of my head, I knew I was going to sink something, and I knew it had to be my own boat. I knew this because, while I do civil disobedience, I never do damage to anybody else. It’s a personal thing. And so, I felt I had to sacrifice my boat. And in reality, the truth is, that boat is nowhere near as valuable as that bay….
Of course, I took the motor out of my boat, because if I had spilled the diesel oil in the bay, everybody would’ve looked at the oil and said “Oh, look at that polluter.” And they wouldn’t have said anything about Formosa putting seven million gallons a day of wastewater out there illegally. That wouldn’t have been the issue. It would’ve been me.
So I took the engine out, because I intended to sink the boat. And I got a shrimper to pull me out in the dead of night. And I was going all the way to Lavaca Bay and I was going to get out to Formosa’s discharge pipe and I was going to sink it right on top of that discharge. It was going to go down and the only thing was supposed to remain sticking up was the mast pole. It was going to be a monument to Formosa’s wrong and evil deed of destruction — what they were doing to that bay. . . .
The only problem was that the Coast Guard got wind of the plan, so I had three boatloads of Coast Guard surrounding me. And they said that I was a terrorist on the high seas and was going to get fifteen years in the federal penitentiary and five hundred thousand dollars in penalties. They said if any shrimper dared tow me out there any further (and I was almost there, I was probably about half a mile away from the discharge point), that they would confiscate their boat, too.
Texas Gold Diane Wilson mends her nets, a stlll from director Carolyn Scott's documentary Texas Gold (2007), a film about Wilson's environmental activism. So the Coast Guard confiscated my boat. And, matter of fact, I spent the night on the boat, tied up by the Coast Guard boats. The Coast Guard spent the night, too, and there were three truckloads of them. I guess they were afraid, somehow or another, I was going to get that boat out to the discharge and sink it. I don’t know, maybe they thought I was going to fly it out there!
But the other shrimpers in the bay, they surprised me. They normally haven’t been supporting me because they just quit believing. They just quit believing you can make a difference. But they were so taken by what I was doing, they all got in their shrimp boats and headed out to form a blockade.
The Vietnamese and the Anglos and the Hispanics. As it was, a huge norther had come in, so
it was a really rough time out in the bay. And on Lavaca Bay, when it’s really rough, you can sink a tanker—that’s how rough it can get. So it was very dangerous. But they all took their boats and they did this blockade and this protest. And that attracted a lot of media attention.
And it was after that, Formosa Plastics said, “What is it going to take to shut her up?”
And so that’s how I got zero discharge.
Diane Wilson is the author of Holy Roller, An Unreasonable Woman, and the forthcoming Diary of an Eco-Outlaw.