Are you too well behaved

The US authorities have allowed Formosa Plastics and other chemicals corporations to poison the waterways of the Texas Gulf Coast for decades. When local shrimp-boat operator Diane Wilson found out what was going on she single-handedly set about forcing Formosa to clean up its act.

I’m a commercial fisher from the Texan town of Seadrift on the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve spent more than 40 years on the Texas Gulf Coast. I’ve fished the bays. I’ve been in the rivers. And I have watched those bays and rivers systematically deteriorate. One thing the people of Texas and the neighbouring state of Louisiana get to fight over is the question of which is the most toxic state in the US. Every once in a while Louisiana gets that honour, and at other times Texas gets it.

With huge oil reserves situated in the region, both in mainland Texas and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico itself, all of the petrochemical corporations operate along the coastline. They get tax abatements and cheap labour, and use political corruption so they can get away with using the bays as places to dump their waste. I think very few people in the US have a sense of what it’s like to live near the chemical plants down in Texas and Louisiana. The fact is there’s at least one explosion at a chemical factory every hour in the US.

A few years ago, an explosion at a Houston plant of the former petroleum firm Phillips 66 killed 32 workers. Another time a huge, thick black fire burned for 28 hours at Formosa Plastics’ facility near Seadrift, and the company was not even judged to have committed any violation of environmental regulations. The Formosa factory is one of the biggest of many vinyl-chloride, or PVC, plants in Texas. In the US the occupational injuries and deaths associated with the work of employees at PVC plants equal or exceed heart attacks and cancer as a cause of their mortality. The public does not know about this and the media does not report it too much, but because I complain about these things The Houston Chronicle once described me as being public enemy number one in my community.

I have been an activist for about 13 or 14 years, and I’m amazed that most people in the US think that there are laws that protect them effectively against industrial pollution. A lot of folks even think the chemicals industry is being hamstrung and over-regulated. But 30 years after the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which promised that the US’s waters would once again be fishable and swimmable by 1982 and that there would be zero emissions of industrial pollutants into them by 1985, a lot of America’s waterways are as polluted as ever. According to the most recent Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 40 per cent of US waterways are too polluted to fish or swim in, and 30 per cent of US industries do not comply with the act. (The figures for industry compliance relate only to companies that bother to report their performance, so God only knows what’s really going on out there.) In the last 10 years, there have been 30,000 closures of bays and waterways and more than 250 million pounds a year of reported toxins going into American waterways. The Clean Water Act has failed miserably.

Seadrift is situated in Calhoun County, which has a population of just 15,000. According to TRI data, in 1989 Calhoun had the worst record for toxic releases in the whole of the US. But by the following year, it wasn’t even on the list. Why? Disturbed by the bad publicity our pollution status generated, our senators and county commissioners lobbied to have one major toxic chemical taken off the official list of pollutants, and, poof, the problem officially vanished. But those 15 million pounds of toxic material are still sitting out there in landfill. Formosa didn’t figure at all in the TRI data for 1990, though in reality it was shipping millions of pounds of toxic vinyl-chloride residues to Lake Charles in Louisiana and burning them. Formosa said: ‘This is recycling, not waste release.’

I went and dug up a bunch of official files and found a number of letters from the state telling Formosa, ‘This isn’t recycling. You need to report these numbers.’ The Taiwan-based company never did, and the matter seems to have been dropped. You have to learn to read between the lines when you hear the EPA or industry talking about how their ‘numbers have come down’. Here’s another example of how these figures are manipulated. A company operating near Seadrift was always near the top of the toxic releases list. Now it isn’t on the list at all. This is because it stopped dumping toxics into injection wells and started putting them in the Guadalupe River instead. (The river flows into the commercial fishing grounds of San Antonio Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast.) For a purely technical reason that got the company off the list.
When I found out about the reality of Calhoun County’s toxic releases record it just blew my mind. I knew there were chemical plants around, but I had never known the true scale of what was actually going on. I am not a natural spokesperson. When I was a child, when people would come to the house, I would crawl under the bed to hide. But when I saw evidence of harm clearly in front of my eyes and people pretending it wasn’t going on, I felt compelled to do something. So, I spent the next 15 years fighting chemical plants and trying to keep their waste streams from contaminating local bays. When I first started, I didn’t understand anything about chemicals or permits or TRI. I would call Union Carbide and Formosa and the aluminium company Alcoa and chemicals giant Dupont and British Petroleum and ask, ‘Could you kind of explain something about your numbers and where they come from?’ It didn’t work out too well.

Eventually, though, I learned how to find interesting material in official government files, and that’s how I became such an expert on Formosa. The company was starting the largest expansion of a petrochemical facility Texas had ever seen in our little bitty county, and nobody seemed to know anything about it. In our little school district, they were eliminating 17 teachers because we were in such bad shape, but Formosa had managed to get $200m in tax abatements, and it immediately started building, bringing in 5,000 construction workers almost overnight. There had been no hearings; no information was available.
In the beginning my only allies were poor divorced women; husbands of married women wouldn’t let their wives get involved because the campaign was too controversial. Since I’m a fisherman and my father was a fisherman and my brothers were fishermen and my cousins were fishermen, I tried to make allies with other fishermen, but the fisheries are in such crisis that most of the white fishermen were very apathetic: they didn’t believe you could fight city hall; they had lost so many battles that all they wanted to do was escape on their boats.

I went out and formed an environmental group. I called a meeting in my town and expected only a few people to attend. I ended up with bank presidents and the local chamber of commerce threatening me. I had senators down there in the fish house. I had people calling me a terrorist. They were certain, absolutely certain, that I was a spy for the state of Louisiana, because Texas and Louisiana were competing for the privilege of hosting Formosa’s $2 billion chemical plant. Wang Yung-ching, the Taiwanese chairman of Formosa, was going back and forth between the two states, and seeing which one would give him the most money for polluting its bays and waters. Texas got the prize because we gave him the $200m worth of tax abatements. And we gave him ship channels and banquets.
Because I protested against this, I was considered a spy. I was considered a terrorist. Formosa threatened to sue me, and every single one of the members of my campaign’s board quit because they were afraid that they were fixing to get sued. People would come up to me very quietly and tell me they couldn’t get involved in my campaign because they had to have bank loans, and they had to have some of their kinfolk working at some of the chemical plants. Because when the fishing industry goes down in the Gulf of Texas, communities have a hard time. These are poor people. Sometimes during the winter, when it really gets rough, they have to get jobs at these plants.

But it’s a myth that you need a lot of people and a lot of money to resist, because you don’t. All you need is commitment and belief. All it needs to start is you: all it takes is one person. I drew a line in the sand and decided the petrochemical industry was not going to destroy bays in the Gulf of Texas any longer. I had previously watched the area’s dolphins die off. All the local dolphins and alligators were just sitting, rolling in the water. You would go out there and you would find hundreds of dead dolphins stretched out on the land.

We watched the red tides, the brown tides, the green tides. We watched Alcoa create a Superfund site by dumping mercury. (Superfund sites are locations identified by the EPA as being the most polluted areas in the US.) Now you’ve got mercury in the sea’s sediment, mercury in the fish. And what do the local shrimpers do? They sit on top of the Superfund site out in the bay and they take the shrimp up, and folks out there are getting nice, mercury-laden shrimp.
My campaigning against Formosa in the US had been picked up by the underground press in Taiwan, where people had their own grievances about the company’s behaviour. (The reason why Formosa wanted to build in Texas or Louisiana in the first place was because there had been too much protest about its activities in Taiwan.) A Taiwanese legislator invited me to visit the country and talk to grass-roots groups, unions, and others for two weeks. I learned of people being jailed, disappearing, being tortured and killed. That trip, those people radicalised me. I felt that people in the US didn’t know how to make change. That lesson can be best described by a quote from the 19th century US writer and anarchist Henry David Thoreau, who is supposed to have said on his deathbed that the only thing he regretted was that he had been too well-behaved.

So I’ve been working to try to enforce a policy of zero discharge into waterways of pollutants from petrochemical plants on the Texas Gulf Coast. Zero-discharge law in the US has actually been around for 20 years. It was in the Clean Water Act, which is a federal law but hasn’t been enforced because folks are just a little too well-behaved about asking for enforcement to happen. But it can be demanded – by anybody. Because if someone like me, someone with only a high-school education and who never even liked chemistry, can get a petrochemical plant to comply with the act (as I did), then anybody out there can demand (and secure) zero discharge at any type of facility they care to get involved with.

I didn’t know anything about zero discharge at the beginning of this struggle. I didn’t even know it was possible. The only reason I found out about it is because I got a call from somebody with a zero-discharge technology business in Houston asking me why I was fighting to stop petrochemical plants getting waste-water permits rather than just demanding that companies install zero-discharge technology.

When I first brought the subject of zero discharge up, the petrochemical industry claimed it had never heard of it. I spoke before a Gulf of Mexico symposium, and I was talking about zero discharge, and these CEOs were saying, ‘What are we talking about here? Philosophy?’ It’s not a philosophy; it’s a technique. It can be done. There is a lot of available technology. It has been done for a long time. For instance, some Middle Eastern countries have been doing it, not because they are worried about pollution, but because they have to conserve precious water. A lot of zero-discharge technology was inspired by a desire to keep water in a closed loop. That’s one of its real benefits. You not only close the loop on pollution and avoid discharges going into the water; you actually save water.

Getting an agreement with Formosa necessitated my being outrageous, because in the beginning nobody took me seriously; they thought I was a real nut. Now they just think I’m a real persistent nut, but that’s what it takes. I eventually had to go on three different hunger strikes to get my point across; one of them lasted 30 days. But I still could not turn the tide and get Formosa to agree to zero discharge. By the third hunger strike, Formosa admitted that the technology existed, but claimed that it couldn’t afford it. I wound up fighting Formosa’s waste-water permit all the way up to an appellate judge in Washington. I lost my attorney, so I started filing my own briefs. Even though I only have a high-school education, and am not real logical or legal-minded, I wrote my own briefs to the EPA.

So you can do a lot. I firmly believe there is a key to the universe. There is a universal law. If you put your commitment out there, I believe everyone is potentially miraculous: we could all be Gandhis. Sometimes things get so outrageous that you have to do something dangerous. You put yourself or your property at risk, and you can create miracles; you can create events. I’ve had people come up to me and want to know what immense organisation was behind me, or who was directing me, and the scary thing is there was nobody. It scared me at times. Because I kept thinking there’s got to be somebody who knows what in the hell is going on and what I need to be doing. But there was nobody there. So you have to make the decisions, and they’re hard decisions.

I don’t believe in having a safety net when making these choices and taking these actions. They’re scary decisions, and you always know you’re on the path because you can smell your own fear, and you head straight for it. You have to head for the fear. Gandhi talked about soul power, and that is what it’s all about. It comes from your soul. It comes from being on your path and realising that there are things out there much bigger than yourself and what you think you’ve got.
I didn’t have much luck with the white fishermen on the Texas Gulf, so eventually I approached the Vietnamese fishermen working there. There had been a whole history of tension and hostility between the white and Vietnamese fishing communities in Seadrift that got a lot of national attention about 16 years ago. After the Vietnam War, 100 Vietnamese families suddenly came into Seadrift, a real poor fishing town, and started crabbing. There had never been any attempt to facilitate communication, not by the entrepreneurs who had brought the Vietnamese, or by any of the state agencies such as the Parks and Wildlife Department, which likes to regulate us, or by any of the federal bureaucracies. When you’ve got a poor crabber who is trying to support his family and he sees another man put his crab traps too close to his, he gets upset about it. The Vietnamese didn’t understand English and didn’t understand the rules.
Words escalated into fights. There was a shooting, and then houses burned, boats burned. Then the Ku Klux Klan tried to come into Seadrift to march. Thank God we kicked it out of town, because it was very eager to exploit the issue.

These Vietnamese fishermen became the most dedicated demonstrators in support of my efforts. A Houston Chronicle reporter said the most surreal experience he’d ever had was to see Vietnamese fishermen protesting against Taiwanese businessmen on the Texas Gulf Coast.
To make a very long story short, I did manage to stall Formosa’s waste-water permit, but it was clear the EPA and the Texas state authorities had every intention of making sure the company got its plant finished. When I realised how naïve I had been, that I could be right according to the letter of the law but still couldn’t stop Formosa from discharging toxic waste into the local waterways, I was so outraged I decided to do the only thing I could think of that would shock people around Seadrift. I’m a very non-violent person, so violence was out of the question. But I decided to take my own shrimp boat and sink it on top of Formosa’s illegal discharge point so that every time anybody went over the adjacent causeway they would see the mast of my boat sticking up, and they would automatically think about Formosa’s discharge.
Down on the Texas coast, your shrimp boat is real important: you can live in a shack; you can have a rusty truck; but, by God, you’ve got to have a nice shrimp boat. For us, that’s like a farmer with his farm. When I was fighting Formosa, I had been on those three hunger strikes trying to get the company to zero discharge, to actually obey federal law. You run a traffic light and a cop’s going to stop you, but Formosa was discharging into a bay system, and it didn’t have a permit allowing it to do so: it was violating the law; absolutely no permit. I had an appeal going in Washington, and everybody knew it.

To really drive home how important this was, and to put things in perspective, that’s when I decided to sink my shrimp boat. I had a 42-foot shrimp boat with a huge diesel engine. I had to have a winch truck pull out the engine because if I had sunk my boat with it still inside and gotten even a thimble of diesel fuel in that bay, the authorities would have fined me royally and said I was the polluter. I had another shrimper with a boat sneak me out in the dead of night, pull my shrimp boat out there in the middle of a storm, and I was going to sink that thing square on top of Formosa’s discharge point. There was going to be a monument to that discharge out there. But about two thirds of the way out I had Coast Guard all over me. It turned out Formosa had hired, for $65,000 a year, one of my cousins, who had once been a fishermen’s spokesperson, just to follow me around. He got wind of what I was about to do and told the Coast Guard. So there it was at midnight in a storm and three Coast Guard cutters showed up looking for Ms Wilson on the boat she was fixing to sink, and they accused me of ‘terrorism on the high seas’.

They said I was facing 19 years in the penitentiary and $500,000 in penalties. They confiscated the boat and tied it up to shore, but what I had tried to do finally woke the fishermen up. When they heard what had happened, all the fishermen – the whites, the Hispanics, and the Vietnamese – got out there in the middle of the bay on their boats and made such a stink that it caught the attention of the media, and it was all over the papers. Formosa finally got sick and tired of all the bad press, and finally agreed to zero discharge.

I got a zero-discharge agreement from Formosa Plastics. It took about five or six years to get. But about a month later I went to Alcoa, which had at that time the number-one plant in the US for toxic discharges. I went to Alcoa and said, ‘Now do we get a zero-discharge agreement or do we do the whole thing over?’ In 30 minutes it agreed to zero discharge.

I just want you all to believe, to know, that you can achieve similar results. Just believe in yourselves and be outrageous. The author Molly Bang wrote a children’s book about my story called Nobody Particular. That’s a very appropriate title, because if there’s one point I want to get across it’s that if someone like me, someone who is naturally shy and has hardly any formal education, can take on some of the biggest companies in the world, anybody can. Somebody once said, ‘It’s the reasonable woman that adapts herself to the world, and it’s the unreasonable woman that makes the world adapt to her.’ I’m telling all of you women to be unreasonable.

Diane Wilson’s story is extracted from Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves (Sierra Club Books, 2004)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2004