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Legendary Activist Diane Wilson in Hunger Strike to Protect Matagorda Bay

Texas shrimper worried about mercury contamination from Superfund site

By Stephanie Thomas

Legendary environmenal activist Diane Wilson has been called “an unreasonable woman.”

As a shrimper, Diane learned firsthand about tremendous pollution damaging the waters near her hometown of Port Lavaca and fought to defend the Bay from Formosa and Alcoa, major chemical companies. In 2019, Diane was plaintiff to a court case brought against Formosa on account of the shocking amount of plastic pollution – called nurdles – that Diane found littered around the Bay. That case resulted in a $50 million settlement against the company that is being used for environmental projects.

Now, as of May 5th, Diane is on Day 29 of a hunger strike protesting the dredging of the Matagorda Ship Channel, a channel first dredged in the 1960s to provide a means for ships to travel between the Gulf of Mexico and the industry along Lavaca Bay. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Port of Calhoun are planning to expand the ship channel to accommodate Aframax and Suezmax vessels, large ships used to export crude oil. 

 Stop the Dredging 

Why does Diane oppose the dredging of the Matagorda Ship Channel?

As someone deeply grounded in her community and the Bay, Diane knows the risks posed by this dredging project. One of the most significant risks is mercury contamination. When I visited Diane in Port Comfort in April, I was struck by signs advising people not to consume seafood from the Bay. According to the Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Impact Statement for this project, the mercury is situated near the ALCOA (Point Comfort)/Lavaca Bay Superfund Site. During the 1960s and 1970s, an estimated 1.6 million pounds of mercury were dumped in the bay. A 2013 Texas Department of State Health Services report documented the spread of mercury away from the contaminated site. Locals report declining bird populations. Dolphins, which were once abundant here, are rarely seen anymore. 

Stop Oil Exports 

Allies from across the United States are supporting Diane’s hunger strike to call for an end to not only this dredging project, but all oil export projects. 

Starting in 1975, the United States instituted a crude export ban because of concerns about declining domestic production. After the proliferation of new drilling technologies like fracking in places like the Bakken, the Eagle Ford, and the Permian Basin, oil companies had a glut of oil that needed to be sold. In 2015, under the Obama Administration, the United States paved the way for climate disaster by opening up the U.S. for oil exports. A 2020 report by Greenpeace and Oil Change International found that “reinstating the U.S. crude oil export ban could lead to reductions in global carbon emissions by as much as 73 to 165 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent each year,” which would be like shuttering between 19 to 42 coal generated power plants.

 Many people along the Gulf fear that building oil export terminals, either through dredging to make way for larger tankers or by constructing offshore oil export terminals, will stall meaningful climate action. The Gulf Coast may be the epicenter of the United States oil and gas industry, but it is also suffering from the harms of the climate crisis. Rising sea levels, rapidly intensifying storms, severe droughts, and other extreme weather have come to plague the Gulf Coast. Take Winter Storm Uri, for example, which harmed millions of people and the wildlife on its path, killing thousands of bats, fish, turtles, and others. 

The Action on Lavaca Bay  

On April 25th – Day 19 of Diane’s hunger strike – I went to Port Lavaca to meet Diane, joining dozens of people from across Texas to join in. Many kayaked in the Bay as a demonstration of solidarity with her, the fishermen, and the communities that will be harmed by the pollution.

“We’re gonna fight it,” Diane vowed during our time together. “ We’re gonna fight it every inch of the way.” 

Diane is urging people to call the Army Corps of Engineers and  tell them to stop the dredging.  

“I would tell the Army Corps of Engineers that there’s a lot of opposition to what they’re trying to do – what they’re trying to ram through down here,” said Diane. “I’ve been down here 19 days and I’ve had many local people come down here and tell me how upset they are. Yesterday we had a big meeting with local fisherman, and they immediately started a petition in opposition to this [project].”  

Indigenous leaders from the Carrizo-Comecrudo Tribe and the Society of Native Nations joined the demonstration in support of her efforts.  

Public Citizen Fasts in Solidarity 

Members of the Texas office of Public Citizen fasted in solidarity with Diane Wilson on April 26th, the 22nd day of Diane’s hunger strike.  We stand with Diane and her community. We encourage you to join her in calling on the US Army Corps of Engineers at 407-766-3004 to stop this project.

Unlike some in the petrochemical industry, we think Diane’s fierce advocacy on behalf of the environment – and in this case, Matagorda Bay – is not only reasonable, but admirable and inspiring.

Follow Diane Wilson on twitter at @unreasonabledw. Follow Public Citizen’s Texas office @publiccitizentx.