An enemy of the people: Diane Wilson took on some big polluters by herself, and paid a price in her small Texas town

Review by Barbara Davenport, San Diego Union-Tribune, September 18, 2005
Get in.
Sit down.
Shut up.
Hang on.

You’re aboard with Diane Wilson, East Texas shrimper and self-described unreasonable woman as she takes on the Texas chemico-political complex in her fight to save Lavaca Bay, the stretch of Gulf Coast where her family has lived for five generations.
She’s alarmed about the four-foot diameter pipe that dumps a daily avalanche of polychlorinated biphenyls and other known carcinogens into the bay, and outraged that the EPA – yes, that’s your federal-tax-dollar EPA – has granted Formosa Chemical permission to do it. She’s a woman in a place where women aren’t listened to, a high school graduate in jeans lining up against high-priced lawyers in $2000 suits, and the lone voice in a port town where the other shrimpers and fishermen wish she’d shut up and go home.
We meet her out on the bay in pitch dark, with a storm rising. She’s dropped her nets, and then discovers that her boat is taking water fast; the deck’s about six inches above the waves. Water rushes into the hull through two valves that have been twisted open, and the bilge pump isn’t running because its wires have been yanked. Wilson dives in the diesel-soaked bilge to find the 5-pound pipe wrench to close the valves, dives again to look for the wires, and in the blackness of the pitching hull she hooks up the pump.
She tells herself she must be getting somewhere. If she were as insignificant and wrongheaded as the chemical company guys kept telling her she was, they wouldn’t be working this hard to kill her.
“An Unreasonable Woman” is a page-turning account of Wilson’s years-long fight to force Union Carbide, Alcoa and Formosa Chemical to tell the truth to the people whose air and water they were poisoning, and to force state and federal regulators to enforce their own laws. It starts when the local paper reports that Texas ranks No. 1 in the country for levels of every toxic chemical released into the environment, and Calhoun County, pop. 15,000, on the Gulf of Mexico, where she lives, accounts for 54 percent of the state’s emissions.
She writes in a highly personal, uneven style, peppered with usages like “the palms of his hands looked hard as supper plates against his worn jeans,” and “when he looked up from his shoes, he pranced like a preacher in a tent, who had the only exit.” Her telling is so much about her own experience that she neglects ever to say what year it is, when events took place, or over what span of time. A reference to Governor Ann Richards locates us in the early 1990s, but Wilson offers no dates or timelines.
These omissions do not detract from the book’s power. It’s high drama, conflict between a woman with old-fashioned notions about integrity, and the forces massed against her who care only for profit. Over a decade, she prevails more than her allies, or her enemies, or she ever imagined she could.
Two stories shape the book. There are her battles in conference rooms and picket lines in parking lots under a blistering sun, from hearings in Austin to her own hunger strike, for the companies to come clean about what they’re dumping, and for the dumping and the leaking to stop.
Her worst opponents aren’t the corporations and their lawyers. They are her brother, who works for Formosa; the fish house owner who reports on her to the company she’s suing; and the other shrimpers and fishermen who shun her. People in town know the chemical companies are an evil and a danger, but they bring jobs and contracts. The more she exposes the companies’ malfeasance, the more her town sees Wilson as the traitor.
The guys she went to grade school with now sit on the city council. First, they ignore her, and when she doesn’t shut up, they smear her; the local paper buys right in. At OSHA, charged with ensuring worker safety, she finds a stunning lack of interest. At the state and federal EPA, she meets outright hostility from officials who flatly refuse to enforce the law. The affable congressman who represents her district has been bought. Tom DeLay doesn’t come out looking good, and neither does Ann Richards.
Woven into the public battles is the other story – of Wilson’s transformation. She’s a mother with five kids and a husband spooked from Vietnam who doesn’t work much and shoots snakes in the yard. She lives out from town in the salt marsh, her neighbors a colony of sandhill cranes, and she’s happiest when nobody comes around. She doesn’t like meetings.
Every meeting in town, every conference with the environmental lawyer in Houston who’s helping her pro bono, every trip up to Austin for a hearing carries a cost: in her husband’s sullen withdrawal, her family’s disapproval, the days and nights away from her children and from the bay that is her spiritual sustenance. Money is scarce. She’s buying tanks of gas and running up long-distance bills she doesn’t know how she’ll pay. She’s alone out on the end of a thin limb.
Wilson has paid for the work she’s done, and she knows the price of things. Her marriage has ended, her children have been largely raised by her family, and her solitude is a distant memory. She’s won battles that no one believed she could, and has become a public figure. She doesn’t whine about the costs, but notes them in her reckoning.
For the American environmental movement, “An Unreasonable Woman” could not arrive at a better time. Citizens across the political spectrum are growing alarmed at the Bush administration’s rollback of protective legislation for water, air and national parks. Wilson, the Texas-grown, authentic, uncompromising heroine who stands up to corporate power, is the kind of figure who mobilizes people to action. This book may well do for environmentalism what “All the President’s Men” did for government reform. Watch for the movie.
Barbara Davenport is a freelance writer in San Diego.
To which we add, bless you Diane, you are an extraordinary person, a true friend, always in our hearts.
See also this Alternet article

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