Jul 16, 2005
Diane Wilson is a shrimper.
And a fighter.
For 15 years, she has been fighting Formosa Plastics' giant polyvinyl chloride facility on the Texas Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Trying to toilet train the giant Taiwan-based petrochemical plant.
A company whose pollution threatens Lavaca Bay.
Where for generations, her family has fished and shrimped.
With press releases, civil disobedience -- she's been in jail 13 times -- hunger strikes and lawsuits, Wilson churned the political waters of the Texas Gulf Coast.
And she's out now with a book detailing her campaign -- An Unreasonable Woman: The True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas (Chelsea Green, 2005).
The book is scheduled to hit bookstores in late August.
In an interview, Wilson said that she has sold film rights to her story to filmmaker Robert Greenwald.
Andie MacDowell is penciled in to play Wilson.
Here's the thing about Wilson -- she ain't sugar coating nothing.
She wanted to get the giant Formosa facility to stop polluting -- zero discharge.
And she wanted to fight to win.
She hired an environmental lawyer from Houston -- James Blackburn -- to help her with her fight.
Blackburn, it turns out, was a compromiser.
In 1992, following one of her hunger strikes against the Taiwan-based company, and with Blackburn at her side, Wilson and Formosa agreed to what she believed would be a pathbreaking settlement with Formosa -- an agreement that would allow activists to name monitors at the facility and that would allow workers at the facility to organize unions free of corporate intimidation.
But only a few days after shaking hands over this agreement with Formosa, the company reneged.
And as a result, Blackburn and Wilson had a falling out.
But instead of dropping the case, Blackburn decided to negotiate a deal between himself and Formosa.
And he did.
Wilson said that the deal was signed in Austin Texas in 1992, in front of television cameras.
What was generally not known at the time about the fight between the environmentalists and Formosa was that Blackburn was being paid by Formosa -- $200,000 over 10 years.
Also not generally known at the time was that Wilson was so distraught by the deal, she tried to kill herself by downing two bottles of sleeping pills.
The sleeping pills made it hard for her to breath, but they didn't kill her.
Blackburn told us this week that he was never paid by Formosa while he was representing Wilson -- that he negotiated the payments only after he had severed his relationship with her and other environmental groups.
Blackburn said that about half of the payments were filtered through environmental groups -- like the Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association.
"Rather than bill Formosa, I made pro bono donations to Formosa," Blackburn said. "In exchange, Formosa made donations to environmental groups, for which I had done pro bono work. And the environmental groups would then pay me."
The other half of the payments went directly from Formosa to Blackburn for his work as the "public interest" member of Formosa's technical review commission -- a commission that grew out of one of the agreements that Blackburn negotiated with Formosa.
When asked why he didn't just do all of the work pro bono, Blackburn responded -- "I was broke."
"There are limits to pro bono," Blackburn said. "That was the whole reason."
Blackburn and Wilson still consider each other friends, although they have differing views of the net effect of the agreements with Formosa.
Wilson generally sees the battle as lost, with Formosa still using the bay as its private dumping ground.
Blackburn says that much progress has been made in cleaning up Formosa's operations.
He says that the agreements are among the best he has been involved in and have led to 35 to 40 percent reduction in wastewater from the facility.
He hopes that the agreements will eventually lead to zero discharge from the facility.
Wilson said that Formosa officials liked Blackburn more than they liked her.
"Formosa was real friendly with him," Wilson said. "They liked him. I used to get furious. They always went through Blackburn. They never went through me. And this is one of my big gripes. It's not just an environmental thing. It's not just about people's lifestyles. It had to do with just being a working class woman out there. Formosa did not like going through me at all."
Wilson's fall book tour might have to be postponed.
She was convicted last year of criminal trespass for climbing a fence outside of a Union Carbide facility in Seadrift to protest the company's activities in Bhopal, India.
If an appellate court doesn't overturn the ruling, she is scheduled to serve four to six months in prison -- perhaps beginning as soon as this month.
That's how these things usually work out.
The big company goes to the bank.
The woman goes to jail.
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