J R Santo, The Dartmouth, October 20, 2006
Diane Wilson lived a quiet life in her town of 15,000 people on Texas’ Gulf Coast. But even though she had her boat, her bay and her fishing, she said she knew something sinister lurked in the bay’s waters.
“I was happiest on the bay and loved that it never changed,” said Wilson, an author and environmentalist, during a lecture in the Sanborn House on Thursday.
Over time, dead fish floated belly-up on the water, alligators thrashed almost spastically and her lake was clogged with a thick layer of algae floating at the water’s surface. The Environmental Protection Agency announced that her town had the most air, water and soil pollution of any town in the United States.
The culprit was a Union Carbide Corporation’s waterfront plant, which dumped its chemicals into the bay.
Wilson, who did not attend college, initially questioned if she was the right person to fight Union Carbide, a subsidiary of the massive Dow Chemical Company. But ultimately she led the crusade against the corporation and, in doing so, said she learned what happens when a woman with five kids from the rural south tries to “mess around with” the world’s largest producer of plastics.
“When you are complaining about chemical companies and you live in a rural area, they tend to think of ways to stop you from complaining,” she said.
Once, a helicopter landed on the front lawn of her house and shot at it, with bullets passing near her mother-in-law and killing her dog, Wilson said.
The company also contacted the spokesman for the fishermen in Wilson’s area and hired him as a consultant for tens of thousands of dollars to convince Wilson to stop the fight. The mayor and county judges told her the same.
“Be a good citizen. Drop this,” Wilson said they told her.
Wilson’s fellow shrimpers felt they could not make a difference.
“They felt like they couldn’t fight City Hall,” she said.
Only after Wilson took the initiative did her fellow fishermen join the protest.
“People need to get out there and put themselves at risk for what they believe in,” Wilson said.
After saving her town, she continued to fight against Union Carbide, though this time she did so on behalf of residents of Bhopal, India.
In Bhopal, the company cut back on precautions at its pesticide plant and as a result 20,000 people died because pesticide leaked and spread throughout the city.
According to Wilson, Union Carbide tried to pay off those who survived and, due to its power over the Indian government, had all of its charges dropped.
Some of the survivors, furious at their government’s actions, started a hunger strike. Wilson, who learned about this protest from an acquaintance, began a hunger strike of her own which attracted protesters from eight countries.
Wilson, however, did not stop there. When she served three months in a Texas jail due to one of her protests, she uncovered widespread corruption and racial prejudice in the Texas penitentiary system.
“On average, it takes six months before you see a lawyer. I’m here to tell you we don’t have habeas corpus,” Wilson said.
People are thrown in jail if they fail to pay a traffic ticket, she said. The conditions in the jail cells, too, are wretched.
Wilson said that closing the gap between the law and its practice for criminal rights will be the new civil rights struggle of the 21st century.
“In the beginning, they called me a nut,” Wilson said. “Later, they called me a persistent nut.”