Mercury Storm Brewing in Gulf of Mexico
Contact: Diane Wilson
Calhoun County Resource Watch
361-785-4680 or 361-676-0663
July 19, 2005
Lavaca Bay, Texas....Calhoun County fishermen, environmental activists, and concerned Calhoun County residents say state and federal agencies were in collusion with Alcoa over the mercury cleanup in Lavaca Bay. They say the recent December 2004 settlement between U.S., Texas, and Alcoa over the Lavaca Bay Mercury Superfund not only failed in its attempt to address the health impacts of mercury on the mostly poor minority fishing communities, but it also under-estimated the amount of mercury released to the environment and therefore the cleanup.
Sediments in Lavaca Bay were contaminated with mercury from past operations at Alcoa's Point Comfort, Texas facility. From l967 until l979 Alcoa operated a chlor-alkali processing unit at the plant and discharged wastewater containing mercury into Lavaca Bay. Federal EPA documents state that Alcoa discharged an average of 67 pounds per day into Lavaca Bay from l967 until 1970. Internal and confidential Alcoa documents and transcripts uncovered from a 1994 court case in Washington between Alcoa and their insurers estimated l, 223,755 pounds of mercury was released between l967 to l979 and that on a 5 day normal working period in the chlor-alkali unit, 1500 pounds of mercury was lost and flow charts showed mercury going to the bay.
Diane Wilson, founder of Calhoun County Resource Watch who coordinated the meeting in Port Lavaca, said, “ We need an explanation for the hundreds of thousands of pounds difference between what was reported in documents recovered in a court vault in Washington and what federal EPA superfund documents say was dumped . Was there collusion? Then, too, explain to me a memo that showed Alcoa and a Texas A & M scientist considering a study to show the mercury levels in crabs from Lavaca Bay by 'blending' them with clean crabs from another bay.“
Juan Parras, community outreach for Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, Houston, said. “We stand with the community in seeking the truth and ensuring that the true extent of mercury contamination in Lavaca Bay is addressed by State and Federal officials and that the health of the community--its residents and small family businesses--be place ahead of profit and business as usual.
In the early l970's , mercury levels in oysters in Lavaca Bay were significantly elevated and the Texas Department of Health closed parts of the bay to the harvesting of oysters. In 1988, the Department issued a closure order prohibiting the taking of finfish and crabs for consumption from a portion of Lavaca and Cox Bays, based on mercury levels found in these resources. The closure order remains in effect for portions of Lavaca Bay.
A Preliminary Public Health Assessment prepared by the Texas Department of Health stated in l995 that eating fish and crabs contaminated with mercury at the concentrations observed from the closure area of Lavaca Bay could affect the unborn fetus of pregnant women and, as such, classified the Lavaca Bay site an urgent public health hazard.
Methylmercury is a nonspecific toxin, meaning it can attack a variety of body systems. It often damages the central nervous system, resulting in consequences such as concentration difficulty, memory loss, and mood changes. Mercury can also cause birth defects. Recently, epidemiological and biochemical research studies have shown that mercury is “directly linked to the development of autism spectrum disorders and is significantly toxic to the gastrointestinal, immunological, metabolic and neurobiological systems in children.”
An Alcoa spokeswoman said the company had estimated the mercury intake for commercial fishermen and their families, compared it with EPA guidelines, and it was concluded the risk was below a level of concern. However, Dr. John Villanacci, in charge of Public Health Assessment at Texas Department of Health, said the agency ran into a wall of silence in the Vietnamese community and suspected the people were afraid to admit consuming fish from the bay because they would also be admitting to breaking the law. That left nothing to investigate. No exposed population. No tests.
Included in the discussion of possible legal options against Alcoa and the Calhoun County Navigation District and a community health study on mercury was the burgeoning lineup of proposed projects near Lavaca/Matagorda Bay. These include 2 coal burning power plants, a Liquid Natural Gas Terminal, and the deepening and widening of the ship channel to accommodate deeper drafted ships and dual industry traffic.
Jim Blackburn, Houston environmental lawyer, stated, “With the Calhoun County Navigation District's proposed deepening and widening of the ship channel, the focus must return, again, to the mercury contamination of Lavaca/Matagorda Bay. Given the failures of the Alcoa Mercury Superfund , it is reasonable to ask the US Environmental Protection Agency to step back in and take a very active role by either reopening the Record of Decision on the Mercury Superfund or to insure that community health studies are part of the impacts associated with the proposed deepening and widening of the ship channel in Matagorda Bay.
Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network, said , “The GRN is very concerned that dredging of the sediments in this area will resuspend mercury contaminated sediments. Mercury in the marine environment bioaccumulates up the food chain, resulting in contamination of recreationally and commercially important fish species, as well as crab and oysters. In short, we are looking at a potential disaster for local fishermen.”
Wilson stated, “ We know the uphill battle we are facing and we also know what Alcoa is expecting of us--- to be apathetic. That's another document we uncovered. Alcoa's public relations director, Joe Goldman, stated, “ We can expect the “pot to be stirred” at almost any time. It is reasonable to assume the State Health Department will continue to be objective in the matter of the mercury contamination unless tempted to succumb to political pressures, and the general public is apathetic unless stimulated in some manner--either or both of which could occur.'
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 26, 2006
Contact: Jon-Mikel Gates, 802-295-6300, ext. 111
A Letter from Prison: Diane Wilson Reports From Texas County Jail
Diane Wilson, author of An Unreasonable Woman, is almost two months into a 150-day sentence in a Texas jail for a misdemeanor trespassing charge. The conditions in the Victoria County jail are deplorable, according to Wilson, a dedicated activist exposing injustice wherever she goes. Now Wilson is breaking through the walls of fear that prevent so many inmates from speaking forthrightly to the administrators of the penal system. She has written a public letter, addressed to Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor, describing abusive conditions within the jail, violations of basic inmates rights, horrifying reports of the withholding of medical treatment from ill women who were jailed on non-violent charges, and the lack of a functioning avenue for inmates to address these problems within the system.
Wilson’s jailing stems from a political action at a Dow Chemical facility in her hometown of Seadrift, TX, in 2002, when she climbed a tower at the plant and hung a banner reading “Justice For Bhopal,” in reference to the thousands of Indians killed following a toxic release of methyl isocyanate in 1984 by Dow subsidiary Union Carbide.
Wilson is a longtime advocate for the victims of the Bhopal disaster, who continue to seek justice for the deaths of their loved ones. Wilson has been trying to meet with Warren Anderson, the ex-CEO of Union Carbide, to demand he return to India to face outstanding criminal charges for culpable homicide in the Bhopal toxic release. She had avoided returning to Texas to serve time for her misdemeanor, demanding that Anderson face up to his more serious charges before turning herself in. Though India has filed with the U.S. government for Anderson’s extradition, he remains at large.
On December 5th, 2005, Wilson returned to Texas to infiltrate a fundraiser in Houston for recently-indicted U.S. Rep. Tom Delay attended by Vice President Dick Cheney. While protestors outside waved placards opposing the Iraq War, Wilson purchased a ticket, entered, and unfurled a banner reading “Corporate Greed Kills—From Bhopal to Baghdad” as Vice President Cheney was speaking. Wilson was removed from the event, arrested, and subsequently transferred to Victoria County jail to serve out her sentence stemming from her earlier protest at the Dow Chemical facility.
Wilson, mother of five, former shrimp boat captain, and a co-founder of Code Pink: Women for Peace, has been an activist since 1989, staging actions and hunger strikes from Washington to Austin. Her environmental work on behalf of the people and bays of the Texas Gulf Coast has won her many awards including: Mother Jones Hellraiser of the Month, the National Fisherman Highliner Award, and the Bioneers Award.
Last fall, Wilson published her first book, An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas (Chelsea Green Publishing). In it she details her discovery that local chemical companies have made her county one of the most polluted in the country, and her transformation from mother and wife to environmental activist. She soon finds herself in a fight against Formosa Plastics, a multi-billion-dollar corporation that has been covering up toxic spills, silencing workers, flouting the EPA, and dumping lethal ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride into the bays along her beloved Texas Gulf Coast.
For updates on Wilson, please visit www.chelseagreen.com/2005/items/unreasonablewoman/fromjail.