For the Bay, from the Heart

Diane and her truck, Rosie, in Lavaca Bay, on day on of her hunger strike, which began April 7th. 

For the Bay, from the Heart: the Latest from Texas Gulf Coast’s Notable "Unreasonable Woman"

by Courtney Naquin, in conversation with Diane Wilson

“A hunger strike isn’t from the head. It’s from the heart. And it gives ‘em the willies.” 

That’s Diane Wilson, the 72-year-old, 4th generation fisherwoman and retired shrimp-boat captain known for her historic win against the plastic tyrant and serial polluting company Formosa Plastics. In 2019, Diane won $50 million against Formosa for their years of illegally dumping billions of plastic pellets into Lavaca Bay (this is the largest settlement in US history of a private citizen’s lawsuit invoking the Clean Water Act against an industrial polluter).

But the relief from this “David-and-Goliath” victory has been short-lived. On the day we spoke, she was on day 14 of her hunger strike against the latest threat to the body of water she’s spent much of her life fighting to protect.

There’s a new dredging operation underway in Port Lavaca. Houston-based oil and gas firm Max Midstream is planning to expand the Matagorda Ship Channel, which would drastically increase global oil exports out of Texas. Diane says that she fears that the dredging- which in and of itself can be ecologically destructive - would stir up the mercury contamination that’s settled in the waters around the Alcoa Superfund Site (one of the largest in the country at 3,500 acres). 

Alcoa, an aluminum processing company whose facility in Port Lavaca is now defunct, is one of the companies in the area infamous for profusely polluting the bay, severely damaging marine life, and harming the local fishing economy. Even Formosa’s discharged nurdles have tested positive for mercury. 

For over two weeks, Diane has committed to her hunger strike by sitting out on Lavaca Bay with her red pick-up truck and a giant sign that says, “STOP THE DREDGING. STOP OIL EXPORT.” She’s been updating her strike daily on her Facebook Page, Twitter, and TikTok, and has started to draw in people’s attention.

“I risked my life to protect Lavaca Bay from Formosa Plastic pollution, and I’ll risk it again to protect it from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mercury pollution, and oil exports,” she told a group of supporters that came out in support last week.

The goal of her public strike is to pressure the Biden Administration to stop the dredging of the mercury-contaminated Matagorda Ship Channel, which has been greenlighted by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Wilson’s demonstration is supported by a coalition of community and climate activists who sent the Biden Administration a letter (with 230 + signatures from environmental and social justice groups, including Sierra Club) demanding the President reinstate the federal ban on crude oil exports. The ban was overturned in 2015, which has since led to a massive and destructive fracking boom in the Permian Basin (and in turn, has left the state of Texas with thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells that will cost literally billions of tax-payer dollars to clean up). 

Since Diane started shrimping, the industry in Port Lavaca has essentially vanished. When she was a young 20 something  shrimp-boat captain, there were 5,000+ shrimpers and fishers. Now, there’s 400 or less, if she were to estimate.

“There are no shrimp or fish houses. There’s no place to dock, get ice, or get fuel. If they get shrimp, they have to put shrimp in their trucks and sit on the side of the road to sell or make calls and see who wants some shrimp,” she explained over the phone.

The petro-chemical industry has all but decimated the fishers and shrimpers of Port Lavaca’s way of life. But with the Formosa Plastics win, there is hope. Of the $50 million settlement, $20 million has been allotted to start a local, sustainable fishing + shrimping cooperative (with the aid of Southern Federation of Cooperatives, who told Diane that this initiative is a historic opportunity to turn around a local economy).

“It’s enough money for them to get docks, fish houses, they can get resources to market themselves. It will bring back whole communities.”

But the dredging operation- which would stir up mercury contamination, further expand oil and gas interests, and harm other communities along the frack cycle- entirely jeopardizes the hope of a local economy that’s already struggling to survive. 

But Diane doesn't give up so easily. She knows personally that a simple solitary demonstration can be the start of a whole movement.

When Formosa arrived in Port Lavaca in the 1990s, the state of Texas “was giving them everything,” including  millions of dollars in tax abatements, expedited permits, and permission to forgo environmental impact studies. So she did what her heart told her: she went on her first hunger strike. For her, this was simply the most accessible form of protest at the time.

“I didn’t have money, and I didn’t have any people. But I had myself,” she stated bluntly. 

Then, during a raging storm in the dead of night back in 1995, Diane set out to sink her shrimp boat on top Formosa plastic’s discharge pipe. To her frustration, the coast guard caught wind of her whereabouts and went after her with three boats, attaching 17 lines to her boat. The coast guard slept on her boat that night while she was locked up in her cabin.

“They were petrified of what I was gonna do,” she laughed.

And while she might have felt alone in her initial efforts, it didn’t take long for her to garner local support. When the coast guard had Diane lassoed down, a score of local shrimpers got in their boats and stuck out their arms in a solidarity gesture (according to Diane, shrimpers don’t normally do this kind of thing).

She didn’t serve any time her act (though she was threatened), but the Coast Guard did confiscate her shrimp boat, forcing her to retire from captain life and go into trotlining (until a search for oil in the bay killed that line of work, too). Eventually, she decided it was time to trade in her skiff for a pen to write her book, “An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas.”

Diane says that many people in the community are afraid of the powerful fossil fuel corporations that both economically and politically dominate the region (even the Mayor of Port Lavaca worked for Formosa). People are intimidated when political and corporate alliances are so visible, especially among local officials. But community folks - even some Formosa employees - would approach her individually to express support, or even offer help.

“People are afraid to speak out. You can’t go to the company. You can’t go to local officials. You can’t go to the environmental agencies. They don’t trust OSHA. But who was the last one out there? I was. I was out there for a very long time. So they started coming to me.” 


Join Diane to #StoptheDredging!

On Sunday, Apr. 25th at 9am Central, there will be a rally & kayak action on Lavaca Bay to demonstrate collective solidarity with Diane’s fight to #StopTheDredging and #StopOilExports. Everyone is welcomed to camp out at Magnolia Beach on Saturday evening, then participate in the action the next morning on kayaks or from the shore. You can help help by:

  • Signing up here for more information and to join the action! (All participants will be required to socially distance and wear masks. Kayakers will need life jackets).

  • Amplifying this action to your networks!

  • If you can’t make it to Lavaca Bay, participate virtually via Facebook livestream!