Diane Wilson, 2023 Goldman Prize Winner: “The Plastic Age Needs to End”
Diane Wilson is proof that one person’s concern about the future of our planet can create significant changes. A 2023 Goldman Prize Award winner for her work in North America, Wilson exemplifies how individual activism can begin as a ripple—and end up as a tsunami.
The mother of five, Wilson’s website carries the tagline, “An unreasonable woman.” Her actions have ranged from anti-war activities to advocating for prisoners in the jails of Texas. She has participated in civil disobedience as well as hunger strikes.
A fourth-generation fisherwoman, her relatives date back over one hundred years in the locale. I had the opportunity to speak to Wilson by telephone to discuss her work and insights.
A down-to-earth person who acknowledges having a touch of “mysticism” in her personality, her emotional tie to the Lavaca Bay is palpable, beginning when she was a young child. Although Wilson knew about local spills and dying fish, it was when an industry colleague brought a newspaper article to her that the individual elements formed a picture. The story profiled the most toxic counties in the US. Their home, Calhoun, was at the top of the list.
Wilson called a meeting of local stakeholders, organized on-the-ground actions, and began researching the issue. Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was doing the minimum to enforce laws on the books. Spills and violations continued. Unsurprisingly, in 2005, workers were injured in a plant explosion.
Who was Wilson’s opponent? Formosa Industries Corporation (FIC), a Taiwanese company that provides petrochemicals and plastic resins to the tune of over $5 billion in annual revenues. Although they have a statement on their website about environmental responsibility, a 2021 press release is posted about their Clean Air Act settlement resulting in $2.85 million in civil penalties.
Wilson’s fight against Formosa began when she was 40 years old (Her quip in her award acceptance speech about starting so late was, “You’re never too old.”). She already knew that the number of fish had diminished. Dolphins were washing ashore dead. An insider tip from an employee at Formosa in 2008 gave Wilson the building blocks and foundation she needed. She began tracking the vast number of plastic pellets, known as nurdles, which were choking the waterways. Community members got engaged by sharing findings. Soon, volunteers were putting together photographic and video documentation. Eventually, they amassed 7,000 pieces of evidence. Within four years, 40 million nurdles were collected.
Texas is the country’s largest chemical-producing state. The Gulf Coast has forty-six petrochemical plants, 42 percent of the nation’s capacity. Nurdles are made from oil and natural gas, of which 230,000 tons become part of the ocean. They are the result of “discharges” from production at these facilities. Estimates predict that in about three decades, the weight of plastic detritus will be higher than that of fish in the oceans.
There was so much at stake with four hundred species of birds, sea turtles, and dolphins in the region. Since nurdles resemble fish eggs, marine life ingests them thinking they are food. In addition, Wilson related that these bits of plastic have mercury residue from a nearby Superfund site.
It was informative yet unsurprising to hear how Texas and Louisiana chased Formosa to “invest” in their states. The usual combination of tax abatements, political favors, sweetheart deals, and “follow the money” scenarios were at play. Formosa received promises they would not be subject to “environmental studies” or “permit hearings” by influential players, and their record of behavior was never questioned. Everything except the health of citizens was prioritized.
Wilson changed the equation when she contacted Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid lawyers to help her prove that Formosa had been dumping plastic waste in the Gulf Coast of Texas. They won a $50 million settlement for the pollution of bays encompassing the Point Comfort factory. Wilson has stated, “The plastic age needs to end.”
Formosa had to acquiesce to an agreement that called for “zero discharge” of plastic waste, remain paying penalties until there was no more discharge, and pay for cleanup and restoration of all wetlands, waterways, and beaches impacted.
Her final words were:
“I believe and know that every person’s efforts build upon another. Energy! When you put your intention out there, things start happening. We have the people. We can do it. Don’t give up! When we won our lawsuit, I was told by a female member of the Formosa team, ‘You are very persistent.’
Persistence is very important.”