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November 2002
Life is Not a Spectator Sport

The Satya Interview with Diane Wilson
 

 

Diane Wilson is a force to be reckoned with, something some of the world’s worst industrial polluters have learned. A fourth-generation shrimper, Diane spent her life in Seadrift, Texas, fishing off the Gulf Coast, that is, until she noticed something. The surrounding area is informally known as the “cancer capital of the world” because of the number of chemical plants that dumped toxic waste into the water, which was killing the fish and making people sick.

After calling meetings, writing letters, etc., Diane realized that she was getting nowhere. The influence of Big Business over politicians was too great. So this small-town mother of five went on a hunger strike, just like that. Two more strikes went unnoticed, so Diane decided to sink her boat on top of one of the pipes dumping record amounts of PVCs into the bay, and demanded a stop to it. That was the beginning of a life of activism and civil disobedience.

Recently, Diane jumped the fence of a Union Carbide plant in her hometown, scaled a tower and chained herself to it for eight hours. She was raising awareness about the victims of the Union Carbide chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India, which instantly killed between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Hundreds of thousands still suffer serious health problems and have seen no justice—no corporate official was ever held accountable. Dow Chemical recently purchased Union Carbide, yet refuses to clean up the highly toxic mess or stop the poison that still leaks from the plant. Last month, the Indian courts upheld charges of culpable homicide against Union Carbide and then-CEO Warren Anderson, and charges were also brought against Dow Chemical.

Diane also raised eyebrows when she and Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange disrupted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s testimony to Congress and challenged his support for war against Iraq. Catherine Clyne recently spoke with Diane Wilson about her hell-raising.

For those unfamiliar with your story, what would you start off with?

That I’m a fisherman, from four generations of shrimpers in one community, and I think that has a lot to say about what kind of activist I am. There’s all kinds of activists or environmentalists or whatever you want to call them—and I take a great deal of pride in saying I’m a grassroots activist. It’s like from the land and the sea and the people that I live among; it’s an organic thing, because it’s not only your livelihood, it’s your home, it’s your community. I’ve got four generations in one town, so it’s the future as I can imagine it. And that’s why I battle here.

What woke you up and made you take action?
It was probably a newspaper article. I had a 42-foot shrimp boat, but shrimping had gotten so bad that I tied the boat up and was running a fish house. A shrimper gave me this newspaper article—he had three different types of cancer and huge lumps all over his arms that were like tennis balls underneath the skin. Our county is real small, it’s not known for anything at all, and it was mentioned in this article four times. The article was about the Toxic Release Inventory, which was the first time industry in the U.S. had to report the emissions they were putting out in the air, on the land, and into the water. It was the first time the public ever saw it. It said we were the number one county in the nation for toxic disposal—matter of fact, our one county had 50 percent of the toxic disposal in the whole state of Texas, and that’s saying a bunch! I was totally flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe it, to have that type of ranking. That’s not the type of information you can sit on or say, “I didn’t see it.” I moved on it, and so that’s where all my work started, right there.

So what’d you do?
I was extremely inexperienced—I’ve always been on the bay all my life. I’ve dealt with water and the elements and the tides and the fish—but I never ever would’ve considered myself an environmentalist.

So all I did was call for a meeting, and I had such repercussions from this county, from the political structure—from just calling a meeting, and it just puzzled me. I didn’t know what was going on, I was naïve, all I knew was those numbers that were in the paper. I got the bank president, the county commissioner, the mayor, I got economic development and city secretaries, all down at the fish house. I was suddenly getting all this hate—it was bizarre. I couldn’t figure out why would they care—I was just a woman down in Seadrift calling a meeting. They didn’t want me to have the meeting, they just wanted me to forget it and be a good citizen and stop causing problems. I had my meeting, and was promptly attacked by probably a dozen mayors, chambers of commerce, and businesses. They believed that just questioning industry, the corporations, was going to cause an economic problem.

What did you find?
Probably the biggest thing that I found out was that our county was bringing in one of the largest, worst polluters—Formosa Plastics. They were so bad they were kicked out of Taiwan, and they were bringing their $3 billion petrochemical plant to Texas. Texas and Louisiana were fighting to get this plant [in their state], and the irony of it was there was not a single question asked about their environmental record. This multinational corporation, who was going to be putting all kinds of chemicals into the air and the water, they got $250 million in tax rebates for coming to our county—our little bitty county, which was having a financial problem and at one point tried to eliminate 17 teachers. But Formosa was just one of them—we had Alcoa Aluminum, BP Chemical, Carbon Graphite, Union Carbide, and Dupont. All of these chemical companies were in our county and they all dumped into our bays. I started looking at them and questioning what they were dumping and what their permits were doing. And the more I looked into it, the more information I got.

Every state has an environmental agency that is supposed to be watching out for violations, and when companies violate the regulations, there’s supposed to be enforcement. I found that was a far cry from what was really going on, and at one point, I even had inspectors giving me information and saying you do something with it, or it will go nowhere. So mine has just been a learning experience about what really goes on in these corporations, and not only what goes into the environment, but also what goes on with the workers inside the plant. To me, that was probably equally as important.

And when did all this take place?
I started about early 1989.

What drove you to do something more drastic than calls, letters and networking?
For the first year or so I went through all the procedures that almost every concerned citizen does. I wrote letters, petitions, I called politicians, I talked to City Council people and to Senators, I asked for hearings, I made Freedom of Information Act requests and talked to the EPA and to other state agencies. Basically I found that the corporations are all self-monitoring—they get their permits and turn in their own violations—and that the most citizens can expect from the environmental or state agencies is scraps off the table. An organization can spend years fighting one of these permits, and the bottom line is, probably nine-tenths of the time or more, the company gets the permit, and the most you can do is a little tweaking: instead of three parts per billion, you’ll get, say, two parts per billion.

Even if a private citizen appeals or tries to file a permit, there are so many laws you’ve got to abide by and if you miss anything, they will throw you out so fast. But a corporation and a federal agency can absolutely violate federal law, be illegal and everybody knows it, and it don’t matter, it will still keep going on as usual. The EPA will allow it, because this is business, this is money, this is economics. And that leaves you very frustrated because the politicians will not help you. They’ll even say they’re not going to commit “political suicide” by getting involved. And in my county that was so small and everybody knew everybody, people were afraid to stand up because they could lose their job, their uncle or their cousin could lose a job; or they couldn’t get loans from banks because the corporations sat on the bank directors.

So I did kind of out of the ordinary actions, but I also kind of did solitary actions, because I at least had myself I could count on. And when you do an action, it was like you had to change things, you had to put something out there that would put things off-center. The first time I ever did anything, I just started a hunger strike; I didn’t know the first thing about hunger strikes, all I knew was you didn’t eat. I also knew that doing it really scared me. I think that’s kind of human nature: most people have got an instinct in their gut to do the right thing when something comes up, but then this logic sets in and a hundred million reasons for not doing it starts hammering at them. And people back down from all of these good instincts. I knew I probably wouldn’t be much different, so I immediately called a reporter and said, “I’m going to do a hunger strike,” and it forces you to do it.

I once read a quote, a man was talking about these impossible things happening, and he said it has to do with risk and commitment, it’s this level that you go out on and it changes things. That’s what I do, I put myself out there, and it has never failed to change things; even when you don’t get exactly what you want—and a lot of times I got exactly what I asked for—it definitely makes you a stronger person for it. I always laugh and say I’ve never in my life finally liked myself so well, but have so many people that just flat out can’t stand me. That’s a good thing, especially for a woman in this country, to really like who you are, and it took me many years to get here.

So tell us what you did with your boat.
Formosa Plastics was doing this $3 billion PVC expansion here on the Texas coastline—the biggest Texas had ever had, and we’re known for chemical expansions. I’d found out they were horrible polluters—everywhere they’d been they had caused havoc—and none of the people that brought them here had ever questioned their environmental record or what kind of impact they would have. I started fighting their permits, and eventually it got down to their wastewater permit, which was real close to me because of the water and the bay and all that. I managed to have them blocked, they could not get a permit until the appeal went through the whole process in Washington. And just by a fluke, I was talking to the EPA attorney one day and she thought she was talking to Formosa’s attorney (we’re both named Diane), so she started talking to me about the discharge and what they were putting in the water. I found out that the appeal didn’t matter, the EPA had allowed them to go ahead and start discharging like they were going to get a permit anyway, so it was like a little game they were playing with me and the only one they hadn’t told was the public.

When I realized that the law didn’t matter, that they were going to do what they were going to do and the federal government was going to work along with them, I was so outraged. I thought something had to be done to make people realize exactly what this meant, because most people don’t think about it—it’s like losing part of your civil rights. So it dawned on me to sink my shrimp boat, because I knew that action would force someone to look at it—it’s kind of like a farmer saying he’s going to burn his farm. That was a painful decision because I truly loved that boat, I had been shrimping on it a very long time, but I believe sometimes when you appeal to a higher law you have to be willing to go out there. I’m a very nonviolent person so I would never have considered sinking anything else out there; it had to be my own boat. So I removed the engine, and in the dead of night, a shrimper tugged my boat out and I was going to sink it on top of Formosa’s discharge pipe out in the middle of the bay. A freak storm had come and it was rough and dark, and all of a sudden there was three Coast Guard boatloads with spotlights, and they said I was a terrorist on the high seas. About two dozen shrimpers went out and demonstrated in the bay when they saw the Coast Guard and my boat tied up, and it made the news, the Houston Chronicle. I had been fighting Formosa Plastics tooth and nail—three hunger strikes and demonstrations and I’d filed suits on them—and I think this last action just made them so sick and tired of me, they were like what will it take? I asked for zero discharge and for them to recycle their waste stream, and I got what I went after. I don’t have a shrimp boat anymore, but you know…

How did you feel with that victory?
This made me realize that we can create change. You know, a lot of people feel helpless, like they’re a leaf blowing in the wind, and that nothing they do can make things happen. People have forgotten how to believe, they’ve lost faith. Everywhere I go I try to get them to believe again—believe in themselves, believe that they can make it happen.

What sort of actions do you encourage people to do?
I usually encourage actions that have some commitment, some risk. But I always say nonviolent, because your actions have to be a part of you. You’ve got to have an integrity about how you live, and your battles have to have the same type of consistency. We’re losing ground, this planet seems to be losing ground, and the way things are set up, we’re making just inches into this road. Things need to happen, we need to make a change and people have to be willing to get out there and do more than write a letter. Letters are good and all, but I guarantee it’s when people put themselves on the line, when you get face to face with your corporations and your politicians, when you have a sit-in in their office, they see you. When they get your letter, they can just pitch it in the little trashcan. I’m all for encouraging the warrior in people that is real dormant to come out.

Speaking of risk, when you climbed up Union Carbide’s tower to protest their refusal to take responsibility for the disaster in Bhopal, India, how real was the possibility of your death in your mind?
I’m going to go sometime or another, and so whichever way it is, I don’t worry about it. I’m kind of what you call a person in the moment. I do what I have to do then: I’m experiencing the climbing over the fence and up that tower, but I’m not thinking, oh this might get me killed. Matter of fact, I have a certain amount of glee about it, a certain amount of laughter. I guess I’m one of these people that sees the humor in life even when it doesn’t seem that way, so I was in a real humorous mood when I went over the fence. It was in the paper, and one of those corporations was saying, “she had to have somebody else help her over, it’s difficult getting over these fences,” and I was thinking I could have gotten my grandma over the fence, it was that easy. These corporations are supposed to have all this security stuff but I guarantee you it was darn easy.

After the tower protest and your month-long hunger strike, what were the results? How do you think that affected Union Carbide and Dow, if at all?
It was a solidarity hunger strike for the people of Bhopal, and eventually over 1,000 people went on it and over ten different countries got involved. It was tremendous; the people of Bhopal told me it had been a very very long time since they had seen such support coming from the world. People felt that the Indian courts were going to reduce [the charge] to negligence, but they won! The courts supported that Union Carbide and Warren Anderson [Union Carbide’s CEO at the time] were still liable for culpable homicide, and they’re even adding Dow to that. So Dow is right up there with Union Carbide and Warren Anderson.

There’s this energy coming from this movement—this is what Dow needs to realize and it’s something Union Carbide failed to notice: these people are not going to go away. These people have lost everything; they’ve got nothing to lose. They will fight, and not only will they fight, but their children will fight, their great-grandchildren will fight.

Have you been to Bhopal?
I went in 1992. And the tragedy still continues. They say 30 people a month still die from the consequences of that facility there, and it’s still contaminated. It’s affecting generations of them—like with genetic and chromosome damage, it’s this legacy that they’re passing on.

One of the things that the Bhopal protesters want is for Dow to seal off the plant so nothing else seeps out. What’s the situation there?
Even after the incident they were still dumping chemicals there. So they have this horrible contamination, it’s in the groundwater. The people that live nearby said they smell it all the time, and it’s just this horrible site. I am sure that in America it would be a triple Superfund site, and they refuse to clean it up. I talked with a Dow public relations lady and she said, “We’re not responsible because Union Carbide sold that.” And I said that in the U.S., if a corporation creates this kind of Superfund, even if they sell it, they are still responsible by federal law for that cleanup. And she said “Well that’s American law, that don’t apply in India.” It’s a double standard.

The people that were injured, some received $500 at most; some of them got absolutely nothing. I think they were given nothing even for the babies that died. But in the U.S., I believe just last year, one family received a $10 million settlement from Union Carbide for poisoning from their pesticide. That’s the difference: over there you have 20,000 that are dead, half a million that are injured, and now this legacy of generations still being affected. This company would no longer be in existence if this happened in America.

Who are your heroines and heroes?
I’ve got a great deal of admiration for Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, and Mother Teresa. I have a great deal of frustration that there are ballplayers and actors and people that are just glamorized on TV, and you see little kids, and they’ve got their pictures on their lunchboxes and backpacks and all this stuff, and these people that changed the world never receive anything. I am just amazed at how sometimes upside down things seem to be. One time I read this book about Gandhi and this British fellow criticized Gandhi and said, “the thing about Gandhi is he wants everybody to be saints.” I don’t think there’s nothing the matter with that, I really don’t. That would be so great if people would consider that a little bit, but most people think that is far beyond anything we could ever aspire to. My heroes are mystics and saints, and quite frankly I think we all could use a real good dose of it.

Well you obviously feel very strongly that just the one individual can make a huge difference.
Oh, I am absolutely convinced of it. And it’s not because I believe it or feel it; it’s like, I am so typical, I am the average person, and if I can do it—and I know people say, “Well if I can do it, anybody can do it”—but I really mean that. When I was younger, I would crawl under the bed to avoid people. The first time I had to make a speech, I burst into tears. I still stammer. It’s taken me many years to get to where I’m at. But by just doing actions where we put ourselves up against our fears, you conquer that fear and it makes you stronger. People have strength and courage, we’re all heroes and heroines; we just quit believing it.

You’ve said that you’re against an American attack in Iraq. How do you think we can stop it?
We’re organizing 250 women to go on a hunger strike in front of the White House on November 17 [see Sidebar p. 15]. It needs to be up front—it’s too easy for people to hear about people dying and being blown up, but you don’t see the people, it doesn’t affect you. They are going to send young men over there with the certainty that they can meet death, and when they drop bombs, people are going to die, little babies are going to die. This hunger strike is serious—the government is going to see up close what it feels like for people if they have to die. It’s [intended] to show how life is valuable and precious. Every time someone looks at those women who are willing to starve themselves possibly to death, they have to realize that the same thing that makes them so upset is happening in other countries by the thousands. So that is why we’re going to do a hunger strike.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
Life is not a spectator sport.

Visit Diane’s Web site at www.unreasonablewomen.org.

 


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