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Shrimper continues environmental fight

HOUSTON (AP) — Diane Wilson's efforts to make the bays and marshes in her hometown of Seadrift safe from industrial pollution have been poisonous to her relationship with members of her community.

She's had her shrimp boat sabotaged, her dog shot by someone hovering over her house in a helicopter and had her windows shot out since she decided to battle Formosa Plastics Corp., a major local employer and benefactor.

“Some people here downright hate me,” Wilson told the Houston Chronicle for its Sunday editions. “Everything that has gone wrong with their lives they blame me for. But I've got a great love for the fishermen here and for the bay.”

Wilson's estrangement from her townsfolk and her environmental fight began in 1988, when she learned that Calhoun County was one of the 10 most polluted counties in the nation.

She directed her efforts at Formosa Plastics after discovering the company had a dismal record with state and federal environmental regulators, racking up millions of dollars in fines, including one for $3.4 million.

Before her fight, Wilson was a mother and shrimper with only a high school education in Seadrift, located about 166 miles southwest of Houston. To deal with industrialists and regulators on their own ground, Wilson took a year to study documents and learn the science.

She then hired Houston environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn to help her.

The chamber of commerce, the county judge, the business community tried to talk her out of her campaign. Her family life suffered.

Wilson went on four hunger strikes to bring attention to her cause.

She was even prepared in March 1994 to take her beloved shrimp boat and sink it right on top of the pipe Formosa Plastics uses to pump its toxic waste into the bay. However, the Coast Guard prevented her from doing it.

Blackburn went with a more diplomatic approach. In 1992, Formosa agreed to allow an advisory committee, of which Blackburn was a member, to manage the company's environmental policy in exchange for the attorney abandoning his efforts to halt expansion of a polyvinyl chloride plant.

This strained his professional relationship with Wilson.

Today, Blackburn still thinks his approach to Formosa was the appropriate one. The company has not reached zero discharge, but it has reduced its discharge by 32 percent, or 2.6 million gallons per day. The number of violations has dropped dramatically.

However, Wilson is convinced what the company says is coming out of its discharge pipe bears no resemblance to what is actually spewing into the bay.

Formosa strenuously denies it falsifies its data and that testing has found no “discernible adverse impact” on the bay or its marine life.

Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission officials said the agency continues to have “issues” with the company, but that the violations mostly concern air emissions.

Wilson doesn't plan to stop her crusade and the war is not over, she says, and it won't be until there is zero discharge of toxic wastes into the bays.

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