MotherJones JA93: Just a country girl

In 1989 Diane Wilson was astonished to read that the southern Texas coastal town of Point Comfort–her home–was site of the number-one polluting plant in the nation. “It was the catalyst,” says Wilson. “I couldn’t believe that no one had asked any questions.” The forty- four-year-old mother of five and fourth-generation shrimper had never considered herself an environmental activist and had little idea of how to go about it. But after setting up some community meetings, she founded the Calhoun County Resource Watch, a pollution watchdog group.

It hasn’t been easy. “I’ve been harassed,” Wilson says. “They’ve called me a prostitute, a lesbian, a racist. They’ve sunk my boat twice, and shot at one of my family members and my dog. The county commissioner put out resolutions saying I was an outside extremist with no interest in the community. I’m being socially ostracized.”

Wilson and CCRW battle local corporate polluters like ALCOA and Union Carbide–companies that, she admits, provide jobs for the county (one of the most economically devastated regions in the country) but at the expense of clean air and water. Wilson, whose livelihood depends on the Gulf Stream, cannot let that happen. “I could no more desert this bay than desert one of my kids,” she says. “I can hear that bay talking–believe me, it talks. I grew up on the water. I’m a country girl.”

She’s currently fighting to halt the $1.7 billion expansion of the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Corporation’s Calhoun County petrochemical plant. Formosa’s wastes threaten to contaminate nearby Lavaca Bay and ruin the $140 million local fishing industry. On Easter Day 1990, Wilson went on a hunger strike to publicize her fight against Formosa and gain the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency. Her strike lasted twelve days; the EPA met with her and agreed to investigate Formosa’s record of noncompliance. In May 1991, Wilson, the CCRW, and the environmental group Texans United filed suit against the plant’s expansion. Meanwhile, construction continues.

Wilson has since gone on two more protest hunger strikes. An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, she feels hunger strikes are the most effective way to make a stand. “I don’t have funds or local support,” she says. “The only thing I’ve got is myself.”