Goldman Prize Winner Diane Wilson Protected San Antonio Bay

Often alone in her efforts, this unexpected activist won big against a major plastics manufacturer

By Grace van Deelen

April 24, 2023

Goldman Prize

Diane Wilson kayaks with the Formosa plant in the background. | Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

In December 2019, anti-pollution activist Diane Wilson landed a historic victory against Formosa Plastics, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, for its repeated violations of the Clean Water Act. Formosa’s violations had resulted in widespread pollution of tiny plastic pellets, called nurdles, in the waterways of Calhoun County, Texas. In the largest settlement ever won in a Clean Water Act suit filed by a citizen, Formosa agreed to pay $50 million.

For Wilson, the enormous settlement was just one step in her career as an organizer that has earned her the 2023 Goldman Prize, the prestigious award given out to grassroots environmental activists across the globe. 

Wilson’s decades-long struggle against pollution started in 1989, when she was working as a fourth-generation shrimp fisherwoman. The issue of plastic pollution fell, quite literally, into her lap. At the time, Wilson was running a fish house, and one of the shrimpers she worked with walked in and tossed her a copy of an Associated Press article, which stated that Calhoun County, where she lived and fished, was the most toxic county in the country.

At first, standing up against polluters—which required stepping out of her comfort zone—terrified Wilson. “I am an introvert. I don't like talking,” she told Sierra. But while activism didn’t come naturally to Wilson, her love for the water did. Growing up on the water and spending so many hours of her life shrimping in San Antonio Bay gave her an appreciation for her environment that made it impossible for her to forget what she’d seen in the newspaper that day. She simply felt action was unavoidable; she had to do something.

Wilson describes reading about the pollution in Calhoun County as one of the defining moments of her life. “Everybody at some point in their life, something happens to them, a little thing or a big thing,” she said. “What do you do with that moment? If you take it and do something, it changes the rest of your life. I did something. And it was totally out of character for me to do it. I felt like this was my destiny. I was meant to do this.” 

With her destiny clear to her, Wilson set out to find the culprits of the plastic pollution in Calhoun County. As her first action, she set up a meeting with city officials. Then, her efforts snowballed; like-minded residents joined her for meetings and demonstrations demanding that Formosa stop discharging plastic nurdles. Wilson’s small team also began to conduct their own research on the plant’s wastewater and began collecting millions of plastic nurdles as evidence of Formosa’s pollution. She also carried out a number of hunger strikes, one of which forced Formosa to comply with an environmental impact study for a proposed expansion of its plant.

For most of her career, Wilson had struggled as one of the only female shrimpers in her area. After declaring her intent to take down Formosa, she struggled as one of the only women—and only shrimper—in local political spaces too. “I knew absolutely zero,” she said. She had few role models or mentors who could help her decipher complex legal arguments or learn how to inquire about permits. Most of what she learned about organizing, and about Formosa, she had to learn on her own. 

“She taught me that eventually things will work out. And if you’re doing it by yourself, that’s OK,” said Wilson’s daughter, Santana Rowe Ayres, who often tagged along as Wilson went to meetings and demonstrations.

Wilson and those associated with her efforts faced enormous pressure from Formosa as their work continued. “They would intimidate people, so people wouldn’t come to the meetings,” she said. Someone once tried to sink Wilson’s shrimping boat while she was on board. While there was never enough evidence to determine the culprit, Wilson suspects the sabotage was inspired by her activism.

After painstakingly documenting the extent of Formosa’s decades of pollution, Wilson and her team eventually won their case. The $50 million settlement is being used for wetland rehabilitation, environmental education, and research. Formosa has agreed to cease discharging any plastic at all into the environment. 

Amy Johnson, the lead attorney on the Formosa case who has known Wilson for a decade, says the key to her success as an activist is her grit. “She doesn’t give in or give up,” Johnson said. “When her attorneys wanted evidence of plastic pellets being discharged into Cox Creek by Formosa, she put her kayak in her old truck and boated up the creek—over and over—taking hundreds of samples and photographs of pellets all over the creek. Diane sacrifices and persists.”

Now, at 74, Wilson has stopped commercial shrimping. But that’s about all she’s given up. She still runs frequent river cleanups and monitoring projects with the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. “I’m busier now than I ever was,” she said. “I have a connection with that bay. It feels like family. I literally cannot give up on it.”

Wilson’s transformation from introvert shrimper to outspoken grassroots organizer is proof that all people can make meaningful change, she said. “You find your passion and you do the right thing by it. Anybody can do this.”

Here are the five other winners of the 2023 Goldman Prize:

  • Tero Mustonen, from Finland. Mustonen led efforts to restore a total of 86,000 acres of former peat mining and forestry sites throughout Finland. The restoration brought back habitat for migratory birds and other species and improved carbon sequestration at the sites.
  • Alessandra Korap Munduruku, from Brazil. Korap Munduruku, a member of the Munduruku Indigenous group of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory, organized efforts to stop mining development in the Amazon. Her work led British mining company Anglo American to withdraw 27 research applications to mine inside Indigenous territories.
  • Dilemma Silalahi, from Indonesia. Silalahi secured legal stewardship of almost 18,000 acres of tropical rainforest for six Indigenous communities in North Sumatra. Her activism prevented this land from being exploited by pulp and paper production and has allowed Indigenous communities to start restoring the forests.
  • Chilekwa Mumba, from Zambia. Mumba’s victory in a lawsuit held mining company Vedanta Resources accountable for environmental damage from its Konkola Copper Mines in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia and set a precedent that British companies are responsible for the environmental harms they cause overseas.
  • Zafer Kizilkaya, from Turkey. Kizilkaya worked to expand Turkey’s system of marine protected areas in the Mediterranean, protecting an additional 152 square miles of water with fishing restrictions. As a result, Turkey’s marine ecosystems have started to recover from damage from overfishing, tourism, and the effects of climate change.