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Too Well Behaved


A 1997 Bioneers speech on zero discharge

by Diane Wilson

Hi there. I'm a commercial fisher from the Texas Gulf Coast. I might say that I've spent over forty years on the Texas Gulf Coast. I've fished the bays. I've been in the rivers. I have set out on the Gulf of Mexico and watched those bays and those rivers systematically go down. In Texas and Louisiana, that's one proud thing we get to fight over: who's the most toxic state in the nation. Every once in a while Louisiana gets it and every once in a while Texas gets it. All the petrochemical plants, they come down on the coastline and they use the tax abatements and they use the cheap labor and they use all the political corruption going on down there, and they use those bays for transportation and as a place to dump their waste. A few years back I learned a very valuable lesson. I learned it when I had a chance to go to Taiwan to fight one of my foremost opponents down on the Gulf Coast, Formosa Plastics, which is a $2 billion petrochemical polyvinyl chloride plant. My work had been covered by the underground Chinese press, and the Taiwan Environmental Union, an illegal group, was holding demonstrations, trying to throw out Chairman Wong and the Formosa plant. Legislator Chen invited me, sort of sponsored me, to come and talk to grassroots groups, unions, and so on for two weeks. I learned of people being jailed, dis-appearing, being tortured and killed. That trip, those people, radicalized me. I felt like the people in the US didn't know how to make change. That lesson is best expressed by a quote from Henry David Thoreau. On his deathbed he is quoted as saying the only thing he regretted was that he was too well behaved.

You might ask what that has to do about bioremedi-ation, or about restoring the Earth. I'm telling you: I've been working on zero discharge of petro-chemical plants on the Texas Gulf Coast, but the point of it is, zero discharge law has been around for twenty years. It was in the Clean Water Act. It's a federal law and it hasn't happened yet, and the reason why is because us folks out here are just a little too well behaved about asking for it and demanding it. My whole point here is not only to talk about zero discharge, but that you can do it and that anybody can do it; because if a fisherwoman with a high school education that doesn't even like chemistry can get compliance from a petrochemical plant, then anybody out there can get zero discharge from any type of facility they care to get invested in. I guess most of you folks know about that Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Data, where for the first time, about ten years ago, industry had to report how much toxins they were putting out. My county on the Texas Gulf Coast is probably about the smallest one there is out there. The whole county's got about 15,000 people. There's a lot of fishing, a lot of petrochemical plants. Anyway, we're not known for absolutely nothing. Houston's too far away. Galveston's a prettier beach. Corpus Christi's prettier than we are. The reason why anything got started was I read in an Associated Press story that my county -- they mentioned our county three times -- we were the number one county in the nation for toxic dis-posal. That just kind of blew my mind, if you'll pardon the expression there. I could not even con-ceive it. I knew there were chemical plants all the way around there, but I never knew the amount of what was going in there. Senators in the Fish House

I'm actually a very mild, quite-type person. Believe it or not, I took speech for ten years when I was a kid, and I hid under the bed anytime anybody would come into the house -- I was that quiet of a person. But on that TRI information, I just formed an envi-ronmental group. All I did was call a meeting in my town and I ended up with bank presidents, chambers of commerce. I had senators down there in the fish house. And I had people calling me a terrorist. They were certain, certain, absolutely certain, that I was a spy for the state of Louisiana, because what they were trying to do was bring down that $2 bil-lion chemical plant out of Taiwan. And the reason why was because it had gotten kicked out of Taiwan, and they were coming down to the state of Texas. So Chairman Wong was just going back and forth between Louisiana and Texas and seeing which one was going to give him the most money for coming down and polluting their bays and waters. Texas got the prize because we gave him $200 million. And we gave him the little ship channels and we gave him the banquets. And for that reason, because I protested their expansion, I was considered a spy. I was considered a terrorist. I remember at one time Formosa even threatened to sue me, and I had every single one of my board members quit because they were afraid that they were fixing to get sued. People would come up to me very quietly and tell me they couldn't get involved because they had to to have bank loans, they had to have some of their kin-folk working at some of the plants. Because when the fishing industry goes down, you have a hard time. And these are poor people, so sometimes during the winter, when it really gets rough, they have to get jobs at these petrochemical plants. And so what happened was -- I'll bring in a little quote by Gandhi (I'm real big about bringing out quotes): it's a myth to believe that you need a lot of people and that you need a lot of money because you don't.

All you got to do is have your commitment and your belief and all it needs to do is start with you. All it takes is one person. So what I did was, I absolutely drew a line in the sand and I said they were not going to take those bays any longer. I had set there and watched the dolphins die off. We had one of the largest dolphin die-offs ever recorded in the Mammal Stranding Network's history. All the dolphins, all the alligators -- they were just sitting, rolling in the water. And you would go out there and you would find just hundreds of dead dolphins. I remember one of the most tragic pictures I ever -- it was acres, acres of land with the dead dolphins coming out of our bays laying stretched out there. We set there and watched the red tides, the brown tides, the green tides. We set there and watched Alcoa Aluminum, with a permit from an agency, create a mercury Superfund. Now you've got mercury in the sediment, you got mercury in the fish. And what do the shrimpers do? They sit on top of the Superfund out in the bay, and they take the shrimp up, and you folks out here are getting nice, mercury-laden shrimp. This is what is going on.

You Can Save the Water

But the point is, twenty years ago we could have done zero discharge, except nobody's asking for it. I remember one time I spoke before a Gulf of Mexico symposium and I was before industry and I was talk-ing zero discharge, and these CEOs in the background were saying, "What are we talking here? Philosophy?" Zero discharge is a philosophy? No, it's not a philosophy, it's a technique. It can be done. There is a lot of technology around. It has been done a long time. For instance in the Arab countries they've been doing it, not because they were so worried about the pollution and they were real con-servation minded, but because they had to have the water. A lot of the zero discharge technology arose from the desire to keep the water in a closed loop. And that's one of the real benefits of it. You not only can close the loop on pollution and discharges going into the water, but you can save water.

Like in the agreement I finally got with Formosa -- and like I said, it took being outrageous, because in the beginning nobody believed me; they thought I was a real nut. Now they just think I'm a real persistent nut. But that's what it takes. When I first started talking zero discharge with these companies -- and these companies know about tech-nology -- they said there's no such thing as zero discharge. You can't do that. But the thing of it is, you persistently bring this up. I went on three different hunger strikes on Formosa Plastics. I think the third one lasted thirty days. And you'd be surprised what your body can do. It really can go for thirty days. It don't take 'till noon to be hungry. You know you can go a long time. There is something about being unpredictable -- being unreasonable really worries them. At the very end I did use the legal system. I filed for every permit hearing. I even lost my attorney, so I started filing my own briefs. And I got a high school education and I'm not real logical or legally minded. And I wrote my own briefs to the EPA.

So you can do a lot of stuff. A lot of it was just waiting on something to start materializing. I firmly believe there is a key to the universe. There is like a universal law. It's like you put your commitment out there. You put yourself out there. I believe everyone is miraculous -- they're all Gandhis. Sometimes things get so outrageous that you have to do something dangerous inside. You put yourself at risk, or your property at risk, and you create miracles. You can create events. I've had people come up to me and want to know what immense organization was behind me or who was directing me. And the scary thing was, there was nobody. It scared me at times. Because I kept think-ing there's got to be somebody back there who knows what in the hell is going on and what I need to be doing. But there was nobody there. So you have to make the decisions, and they're hard decisions.

I don't believe in having a safety net when making these choices and actions. They're scary decisions and you always know you're on the path because you can smell the fear. That's your own fear. And you head straight for it. I guarantee it. That's a real key I'm going to tell you there. You head for the fear. I think Gandhi, he talked about soul power, and this is what it is. It comes from your soul. It comes from being on your path. And you realize that there are things out there much bigger than your self and what you think you've got. The Shrimp Boat That Wouldn't Sink Down on the Texas Coast, your shrimp boat is real important. You can live in a shack. You can have a rusty truck, but by God, you got a nice shrimp boat. For us, that's like a farmer with his farm. When I was fighting Formosa I had been on three hunger strikes trying to get them to zero discharge, and like I said, this is the irony of it: this is all federal law. You're not supposed to do this. You're not supposed to do that. You run a traffic light and the cop's going to stop you. Formosa was discharging into a bay system and they didn't have their permit. They were violating the law. Absolutely no permit. I was fighting. I had an appeal in Washington. And everybody knew it.

To really get home to them how important this is and what is really going on, and to get things in per-spective, that's when I took my shrimp boat. I had a forty-two-foot shrimp boat with a diesel engine much bigger than this podium here. I had to have a winch truck to pull it out. And the reason why I did that was, if I had sunk it with the diesel engine in it, they'd say oh, that polluting woman. That's awful. And here you have a chemical plant polluting every day, but a woman sinks a shrimp boat with an engine in it, oil in it, and she's a polluting woman. So I pulled the engine out and gave it away. I had a man sneak out and pull my shrimp boat out there in the middle of a norther, and I was going to sink that thing square dab on top of Formosa's discharge point.

Because I guarantee it, from then on they were going to have a monument to that discharge out there. And then about two-thirds of the way I had Coast Guard all over me; thirteen spent the night on the boat with me. And those Coast Guard can be real mean folks, I guarantee you they can be. They confiscated my boat for quite a long time. And I was called everything from -- well, I've been called a ter-rorist. Even for hunger strikes they call it a terrorist. I want to let you know, after that one, I got a zero discharge agreement from Formosa Plastics. It took about five or six years to get it from Formosa. But to give you encouragement, about a month later I went to Alcoa Aluminum, who had been the number one plant in the nation, as a matter of fact, for toxic disposal. I went to them and I said, "Now do we get a zero discharge agreement or do we do the whole thing over?" And in thirty minutes, they agreed to zero discharge.

So anyway, I want to end this but I want to let you all know that I've got material on zero discharge. I have a lot of copies. I'll give everything I've got away. This document tells the technology and details the steps on doing zero discharge. How to do it in a plant, from the water balance to the resources, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel. There's bad things out there, but the technique of getting out there and getting justice is like -- I just want you all to believe, to know, that you can do it. And that all you got to do is have belief in yourself and just be outrageous. That bay, to me, has a right to existence. We don't have to ask; we have to demand what is ours. o

Diane is a fourth generation Lavaca Bay shrimper. Her work testifies to her commitment and sacrifice on behalf of her livelihood and the waters that allow her to live. She's fishing on a little skiff right now, for black drum. Diane continues to fight for zero discharge on several fronts: persuading DuPont not to release its wastewater into the Guadeloupe River; working with an injured workers association that appreciates her ability to stand up to big industry; and organizing with unions in Texas City. Her activist group is Calhoun County Resource Watch, PO Box 383, Seadrift, TX 77983; 512 / 785-2364.

Printed as an article in the quarterly "Whole Earth Review", 1408 Mission Avenue, San Rafael, CA 94901-1971 (415 / 256-2800); No. 93 (Summer 1998), p. 68. Copyright (c) 1998 Point Foundation. From: Ernest Dichter Institut

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