Diane Wilson is a 4th generation shrimper from Seadrift, Texas. Her life was business as usual until another shrimper with three different kinds of cancer showed her an article naming her home county (Calhoun) as the most toxic in the country. She discovered that the company Formosa Plastics was dumping enormous quantities of toxins into the local bay despite prohibitive regulations. Shocked and outraged, she realized that the smaller catches, dead dolphins, and illnesses (including cancer) her community was experiencing were likely attributed to Formosa and other plants’ dirty dumping. She started asking questions and turned to activism and has been on that path ever since.
With no help from federal agencies or the companies themselves, Diane had to completely teach herself all of the chemical lingo to understand the plants’ pollution. Believing in civil disobedience and direct action, Diane began hunger strikes against a continued water discharge permit for Formosa Plastics. She then held her final event to attract attention to Formosa’s pollution: she tried to sink her shrimp boat in the middle of their toxic mess. Although her plan was foiled by the Coast Guard, the attention gained succeeded in both Formosa and Alcoa eventually agreeing to zero discharge.
Although Diane’s actions were heartfelt and in the interest of the community, she faced social ostracism for her activism. She was threatened for meddling with the companies’ affairs and gained negative attention from people salaried by the industries. Yet she continued to fight for what she felt was just. After her success with the Formosa and Alcoa plants, she helped found CODEPINK, a grassroots social justice organization formed to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2002 (CODEPINK supports federal funding of green jobs, health care and education instead of militarism).
Diane has also moved on to new expressions of activism: she covered herself in fake oil twice at Congressional hearings on the BP oil spill and called for BP’s CEO Tony Hayward to be held liable for the “largest environmental catastrophe in US history”. She also participated in a hunger strike in the fall of 2010 to end offshore oil drilling and lift oil companies’ damage liability cap. Diane’s methods are always geared toward attracting attention- they are often confrontational and lead to her arrest (she’s been arrested 50 times). Her belief, however, is that “putting your life at risk is where change happens”- and based on her success in stopping Formosa’s pollution, she seems to be correct.
What’s remarkable about Diane is that she is no different from many Americans- she worked in a commercial business, she wasn’t trained in chemistry or environmental law, and she was shy and not prone to public confrontation. Yet she saw a problem that was unaddressed and unfair and realized she had to act on it. She found a form of activism that didn’t require money or many other people and put her life into it. I think Diane has a lot to teach us- she believes that “if you do anything half-hearted, you’re not going to make a change”. She calls attention to the difficulties facing residents and workers in the Texas Gulf region and the ironies of environmental enforcement.
Thankfully, Diane’s accomplishments have been recognized- she won both the Lois Gibbs’ Environmental Lifetime Award and Louisiana Environmental Action Award and has published the books An Unreasonable Woman, Holy Roller and Diary of an Eco-Outlaw. She also is featured in Texas Gold, a short documentary about her efforts, which won Best Documentary at the New York City Short Film Festival in 2005. Her activism is far from complete- she now works with two organizations founded to create more humane conditions in Texas jails and protect injured workers and whistleblowers within Gulf oil companies (Texas Jail Project and Injured Workers United, respectively). Diane definitely does NOT seem like a lady that’s going to settle down anytime soon…we can probably expect her to continue fighting against pollution and unjust treatment for the rest of her life.