“I had the bank president come down to the fish house – and I had never talked to that man a day in my life – and he came down in a three piece suit and he said he wanted to know,” Diane Wilson recalled. “He said, ‘Diane, are you starting a vigilante group to roast industry alive?’ And I was like, ‘What? What?’ I was totally flabbergasted by this reaction over a simple [meeting] request.
This was some of the early opposition 2023 Goldman Prize Winner Diane Wilson experienced at the beginning of her resistance against Formosa Plastics, a Taiwan-based petrochemical company with facilities in Calhoun County in Texas.
Diane Wilson's involvement in 2019 landmark case, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper And Diane Wilson vs. Formosa Plastics Corp.,Texas and Formosa Plastics Corp., USA, led a settlement of $50 million — the largest settlement won by a private citizen fighting industrial polluters.
With over 30 years in the game, Wilson — a retired Texan shrimper from a long line of Texan shrimpers — has carefully crafted a brand of environmental activism.
Wilson’s been in the ring with Formosa Plastics since 1989, when she noticed that the amount of shrimp she was catching was plummeting. Now in her seventies, Wilson serves as executive director for San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, the other plaintiff in the Formosa suit, and founder and director of Calhoun County Resource Watch. In a discussion with People over Plastic Diane Wilson reveals how her approach to activism shifted after discovering that the system she was trying to work through was not trying to work with her.
When Wilson and her team walked the bay they were looking for nurdles or plastic pellets and microplastics or plastic in powder form. They had been manufactured in Formosa petrochemical plants and later found in Cox Creek and Lavaca Bay, where Wilson used to shrimp.
Now, the even more technical term for nurdles and microplastics is polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, and polyethylene. These puny plastics are in everything you expect like water bottles and packaging and everything you don’t, like car parts and clothing.
Listen to Diane Wilson, illustrate the magnitude of petrochemical or plastic pollution. She documented it during San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper And Diane Wilson vs. Formosa Plastics Corp.,Texas and Formosa Plastics Corp., USA.
Formosa Plastics is one of the top manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene and polyethylene in Wilson’s area. With studies that correlate these petrochemicals to a rise in liver, brain and other cancers in a region known as the “Cancer Belt,” one would think the road to justice would be swift and worn from scores of people joining the fight against plastic pollution. Unfortunately, one would be wrong.
Wilson recalled being referred to as a Louisiana spy and a hysterical woman by local government and banking officials, her organizing meetings were frequently disrupted and she even received death threats.
In the 30 years before the victory against Formosa, Wilson would meet Formosa whistleblowers in clandestine locations for evidence, collecting her own evidence along the bay with her team and documenting millions of nurdles and over 5,000 photos to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) only to have it rejected.
But after the four years it took to begin legal processes with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in 2015, formally sue Formosa in 2017, wheel thousands of samples into the courtroom on the first day of trial and win in 2019, Wilson somehow became busier.
The court’s final decision resulted in a $50 million settlement and a TCEQ enforced investment of $100 million in zero-discharge policies from Formosa. Wilson had the $50 million settlement put in a trust that will fund conservation and rehabilitation to the bay and the wetlands, build parks and create fishery cooperatives. And she says managing the victory has been a doozy.
Formosa Plastics is a Taiwan-based company and unfortunately victory in Texas does not mean victory in Taiwan or Vietnam, where other communities continue to be overwhelmed by the company. As Wilson manages victory here, she also supports the fight in Vietnam — where penalties for the civil disobedience Wilson has engaged in since the 90s are far steeper.
“We’re fighting for justice for them,” she said, “and it’s a really tough go.”