Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation South Texas shrimper who took on a multi-billion dollar corporate polluter in court and won, has received a 2023 Goldman Prize for environmental activism.
Wilson’s $50 million settlement with Formosa Plastics Corp. – for illegal pollution of the bays surrounding its Point Comfort, Texas plant – is the largest monetary settlement to date in a lawsuit brought by a private individual under the Clean Water Act, according to Texas RioGrande Aid, the legal aid agency that represented Wilson.
The prize money is helping fund local community efforts to slow coastal erosion, build a park, and send kids to camp.
“Diane Wilson stood out for her immense dedication to both her environment and her local community, with efforts that resulted in a landmark settlement and remediation measures to clean up years of destructive pollution,” said Mike Sutton, executive director at the Goldman Environmental Prize, in an email.
“Her persistence and refusal to give up will allow for the restoration of Matagorda Bay and the return of the embattled fishing industry,” he said. “Her remarkable achievement and ongoing commitment to fighting plastic pollution demonstrates the power of grassroots action to create concrete change.”
The Goldman Environmental Prize, called by some the “Green Nobel Prize,” is awarded annually to six grassroots environmentalists. Prize winners will be celebrated at an event in San Francisco on April 24, and a second ceremony in Washington, D.C. on April 26. The other 2023 winners are Chilekwa Mumba of Zambia, Zafer Kizilkaya of Turkey, Tero Mustonen of Finland, Delima Silalahi of Indonesia, and Alessandra Korap Munduruku of Brazil.
In her 2005 autobiography, “An Unreasonable Woman,” Wilson, now 74, described her path from shrimper and mother of five to environmental activist.
For years, Wilson had noticed that shrimp were getting harder to catch in the bays where she fished. In 1989, she began to connect the degradation of the shrimp fishery to the pollution discharged into the bays by surrounding chemical plants – notably Formosa Plastics.
Over the next several years, Wilson enlisted local fishers and former chemical facility workers in her efforts to stop the pollution. She and a former Formosa employee named Ronnie Hamrick walked local beaches, waded through mud, and kayaked the coastline to collect evidence of the company’s pollution. Everywhere they looked, Wilson and Hamrick found plastic pellets about the size and shape of a grain of quinoa – called nurdles – which had been discharged by Formosa’s plant.
In 1995, the Coast Guard stopped Wilson from sinking her own shrimp boat near a wastewater outflow pipe from Formosa’s plastic manufacturing facility.
A state wastewater discharge permit barred Formosa Plastics from discharging the nurdles into local waters. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality failed to stop the pollution.
So, in 2017, Wilson sued Formosa Plastics, borrowing a horse trailer to carry the billions of nurdles she and Hamrick had collected to a federal courtroom in Victoria, Texas. In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled that Formosa Plastics had violated the Clean Water Act, writing in his decision that the company was a “serial offender” with “extensive, historical, and repetitive” releases of plastic pollution that it failed to report.”
The settlement included a “zero-discharge” agreement, which the company has violated so many times that Wilson and her attorneys have collected another $10 million in penalties.
“It’s still ongoing,” said Wilson. “They can’t seem to stop the plastic.”
In 2021, Wilson carried out a 36-day hunger strike to bring attention to industrial pollution, which has not only harmed her fishing grounds but put her community’s health at risk. Calhoun County, where Wilson lives, is among the areas with the highest risk of cancer from air pollution in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice screening and mapping tool.
“In a county like I live in, that was the only way I got any type of movement,” Wilson said. “You can’t go to the local officials or the state and local agencies, you were totally blocked.”
Wilson scaled a Dow Chemical plant tower in Calhoun County in 2002 to protest the lax sentencing of executives for their negligence in the 1984 pesticide plant explosion in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 3,800 people.
“I have had the experience of how many ways it could go wrong and how many ways you don’t get justice,” she said. “I sympathize with all the frontline leaders.”
In 2022, the North America recipient of the Goldman Prize was Sharon Lavigne, a retired Louisiana teacher turned environmental activist who also squared off against Formosa, which planned to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in her community.
Wilson supported Lavigne in her fight by once again loading up Formosa Plastics’s polluting nurdles and driving them to a St. James Parish Council meeting.
“She came to Louisiana and she brought a whole lot of pellets,” Lavigne said. “She deserves the award. It’s a long time overdue.”
CORRECTION (4/24/23): Due to an editing error, the original version of this article stated that Wilson scaled a Dow Chemical plant tower in 2022. That has been corrected.