An Unreasonable Woman:
An Interview with
DIANE WILSON
By Sonia von Matt Stoddard

 

 

The unreasonable woman, as she labels herself, is Diane Wilson. She may seem that way to the giants with whom she is fighting. The more you speak with her though, the more you find yourself in awe of a truly remarkable individual who has undertaken a tremendous personal challenge and is winning the fight to make big-business polluters accountable for their actions.   

When Diane Wilson was a child, she would visit Lavaca Bay, in the Texas Gulf Coast. She regularly saw a vision. “I saw the bay as an old gray-haired woman, with a personality. It was like she was my grandmother. When I was a little girl, every time I would go to the bay, I saw her and she made me feel loved. I really enjoyed going to the bay because of that. I didn’t think about it much. I wasn’t planning to see her. It wasn’t logical. It just was. It was simple intuition or a gut-feeling.” Diane has also had a multitude of dreams, many of which have come true.

In her book, “An Unreasonable Woman” she tells us her story, which is fraught with events and incidents right out of a Hollywood screenplay: sabotage, bribery, illegal toxic dumping, midnight rendezvous and shady politicians. She started out with the simple intention to halt further pollution in her beloved Lavaca Bay. Her fight to hold a foreign chemical company accountable for its polluting waste products was finally won, despite sabotage and underhanded dealings by individuals and corporate entities.

The upside is that she still continues to win small battles along the way. Her efforts have metamorphosed into a national movement for Zero Discharge of all the nation’s waterways, which she considers a stepping stone for total sustainability. And recently, her environmental actions have crossed over into peace activism.

Awareness: Tell us a bit about your town, your area and your people.

Diane: Calhoun County has about 18,000 people, with about one thousand living in each of the communities of Point Comfort and Port O’Conner, and the rest  in Port Lavaca. When I first began my work, the unemployment rate was 15 percent. This was higher than the national average and this statistic did not include the fishing industry. Calhoun is very rural. The next town where you can buy clothes is Victoria which is 30 miles away.

Calhoun’s beginning was farming and fishing. Both are in decline, but the fishing industry is far, far worse. The chemical companies have taken over. Point Comfort is a “company town” which means it was originally made and bought by Alco Aluminum. Most of the original Alco families are gone, bought out by Formosa Plastics. Formosa pretty much owns everything.

Awareness: Some people refer to you as the Erin Brokovich of Texas. What led you to become an environmental activist?

Diane: I got involved in l989. I was running a fish house in Seadrift, Texas, called Froggies Shrimp Company. Shrimping got so bad that I had to tie up my shrimp boat, the SeaBee. One of my shrimpers gave me an Associated Press story of the first time the Toxic Release Inventory had ever been made public. The story said that Calhoun County, my county of l8,000 people, ranked number one for toxic release to the land. We also ranked in the top for emmissions to the air, transference of chemical wastes, and injection wells.

I was floored at the information and decided to call a meeting. There was a serious backlash to just the call for a meeting. City Hall, the president of the bank, economic development, county commissioners, senators, and plant managers all came to my fish house insisting that I stop. But I didn’t stop.

The first order of business for my new environmental group, Calhoun County Resource Watch, was to ask for a hearing on Formosa Plastics, a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) producer that was asking for seven air permits. Formosa was fixing to build the biggest chemical expansion Texas had ever seen — l.7 billion dollars worth, and this from a major polluter.

So, I requested hearings, filed petitions and lawsuits, but these failed because the agencies and politicians were working hand-in-hand with the corporation to get their permits. That is when I started non-violent civil disobedience, such as hunger strikes (three of them), eventually taking my own boat out and attempting to sink it on top of Formosa’s illegal discharge.

Awareness: Can one person really make a difference?

Diane: Yes! I didn’t set out to prove this. It just happened because after forming the group, everyone quit. They were afraid that they would get sued by the chemical company, afraid a family member would lose a job at the plant, or they (or their family member) would no longer be able to obtain loans at the banks. Someone from company management was always involved on the board of directors.
There was a lot of fear. People would get involved but only secretly. Usually a worker at the plant would only got involved after they had gotten injured. The poor shrimpers were so depressed it took a LOT to get them involved. They are in an industry that is dying.

So, I ended up working alone. When you are by yourself you tend to proceed with actions that only require one person, such as a hunger strike. It sure saved on arguments because there were no arguments. I would make a decision and just do it!

Awareness: Early in the book you mention your vision and your dreams. Please tell us a bit about your dreams and how they provide you with focus, strength and a pathway to the future.

Diane: Not too many people ask me about my dreams. I love dreams. I have a lot of dreams that came through. I mention about four of them in the book.  One dream not included in the book was when I saw a hurricane and saw its path through Matagorda Island. A few weeks later, a hurricane made a direct hit on the island. A very recent dream that came true was at the campsite at Crawford, Texas (George Bush’s Ranch). I dreamed of the road and the tree, and the long line of crosses marking the dead soldiers.

One recurring and monumental dream, in particular, became the catalyst for interpretation. I was in an old house by the water. The house had many rooms and all of this antique furniture and mirrors that reflected the furniture. I would wander about this house and open drawers filled with gleaming jewels. The rooms, the furniture, and the mirrors were all so marvelous.

Our family is one of hard workers, with a Pentecostal faith background. We didn’t talk about dreams or visions. I didn’t really share my vision or my dreams with anyone else until this point. I had always thought it was perfectly normal to have dreams and have them come through. I never started interpreting them until someone who heard this dream told me “that house is you!” And, all those jewels represent how valuable and precious you are. Knowing this felt wonderful to me.

Awareness: You had a near-death experience when your boat was sabotaged but you survived, even though your account demonstrated that it was quite harrowing. With such a strong will to live and succeed, along with all your efforts, as well as concern for the lives of everyone in Point Comfort and surrounding areas, why attempt suicide? Was there a particular part of this failure that drove you to attempt suicide?  

Diane: I was so unbelievably tired — exhausted beyond words and not thinking rationally. I just wanted to sleep. I had fought so hard and the fight was so intense. There was not a minute of the day when there wasn’t intense concentration and battle. I had just finished a long hunger strike, to no avail.

After the hunger strike my attorney pulled out of the litigation, created an entirely new agreement and claimed that the fight was now different. My support was zero. Everyone had abandoned me — my family, my husband. There was not a single person there for me. Everyone had left.  

I had a moment of weakness, maybe because for that moment there was no fight and I contemplated giving up. I tried to sleep but couldn’t, even though I ate sleeping pills. The more I tried to sleep, the more awake I felt.

Awareness: How did you take care of your family and five children during these three years when you were engaged in battle?

Diane: I worked seasonally at the fish house, shrimped or patched nets. My husband (now my ex-husband) worked a bit taking boats offshore to oil rigs. My work is seasonal so I wasn’t working every day. There were months when there was no work at all — maybe just a patching net job. Our income wasn’t much, but being fishermen, you get used to living frugally.

I have a lot of kinfolk in this town. I either had my kids with me, my mother watched the babies, or my two oldest daughters babysat. Sometimes, my husband would be there.

Awareness: At one point you had boxes stacked on the floor of the sea shack. Later, you were gathering excerpts from court cases and doing legal research. You fell in love with the words “arbitrary and capricious” and, in fact, used these very words in your appeal to the EPA. Did you have any background in activism before this?

Diane: No, I never had any previous experience with activism, other than supporting fisherman. I had never talked before a crowd, had never filed a suit, and had never talked with an environmental agency. It was my passion for the Bay that drove me.

Awareness: You could have really used some solid help. Everyone was going about his or her own agenda. Even Greenpeace sent a lawyer who was called back on another crisis. What did you feel at this point — abandoned, angry, sad, disillusioned?

Diane: I felt I didn’t have the luxury to experience any of those feelings. It only hardened my resolve, e.g. if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger.

Awareness: What other agencies were involved?

Diane: Without the help of an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and another reporter I did not mention in the book, the story would not have gotten out. We became, and still are, pretty good friends. Some of the other agencies involved were the National Marine Fisheries, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Water Commission, Texas Air Control Board, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Awareness: It’s been a while now. Have any studies been done on children in the Point Comfort area?  

Diane: Within the last few years, we did a study on Vietnamese couples for exposure to phthalates (endocrine disrupters), and are now doing preliminary studies for mercury exposure in the fishing community. My health studies have been a long time in coming. I was often the only person in my environmental group. At one time all the members of my group quit because they were threatened with lawsuits.

My primary focus has been to keep the bays from being destroyed by wastewater discharges. There was no time for studies. I was fighting wastewater permits.

Our area of the world is very rural. We are far from the major cities of Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi. We are a little place and highly integrated with politics and commerce. The politicians who are responsible for the community have monetary contracts with the chemical companies, so there is complete conflict of interest. There has been a deliberate intent to keep the toxins a secret.

In fact, a major director of the American Cancer Society did his best to make sure there was no health study and put forth a concentrated effort to make sure it did not happen. He suggested that I contact Earth First, an environmental group associated with a lot of negative publicity, and ask them to become involved. Of course, these people thought I was a really stupid, hick woman who would fall for their scheme to discredit me.

A few weeks later I saw his picture in the newspaper and sure enough, he was also a director of one of the development firms that stood to gain substantially by keeping health studies out of the picture.

Awareness: If you could go back, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Diane: I would not go off the hunger strike until AFTER the papers were signed and underscored in any agreement with the company!

Awareness: What happens now that the “unreasonable woman” story is over, insofar as the book is concerned?

Diane: I don’t think the unreasonable woman story is over at all. My work only seems to have broadened, and my willingness to think outside the box is greater than it has ever been.

Awareness: What do you feel is the most important solid resolution that has come from this?

Diane: My goal of Zero Discharge has definitely become more important. And, instead of just for local plants, it has now become a national goal.

Awareness: In another interview you have been quoted as saying “Life is not a spectator sport.” Are you still willing to stick with this advice?  Would you add anything?

Diane: Yes, I am willing to stick with the advice that life is not a spectator sport, and I would only add that I am cursed with enthusiasm.

Sonia v. M. Stoddard is a free-lance writer, book author and reviewer. She is a principal of an independent lease finance comp-any, Stoddard & Associates, offering equipment financing to business owners. She is also owner of FitnessWitch Botanicals, which custom creates 100% organic essential oil blends, healthy edibles and body products. You may e-mail her at Lease@StoddardAssociates.com  and visit www.FitnessWitch.com.


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