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Book Data

ISBN: 9781933392271
Year Added to Catalog: 2006
Book Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 6 x 9, 391 pages
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Old ISBN: 1933392274
Release Date: September 15, 2006
Web Product ID: 3

Also By This Author


An Unreasonable Woman

A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas

by Diane Wilson

Foreword by Kenny Ausubel

Media Excerpts

The following excerpts from An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and Fight for Seadrift, Texas by Diane Wilson have been adapted to stand alone for free use as media articles. When reprinted, all excerpts should be attributed: Copyright 2005 Diane Wilson, from An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. Reprinted by permission of Chelsea Green Publishing Company, chelseagreen.com.

p. 32:

I was leaning towards the bay. Actually the whole fish house was leaning towards the bay, and already a crack ran through the fish house so I could never pull boxes of shrimp out of the vault without running into that crack and throwing cold shrimp and ice halfway down my boots. My coffee cup was sitting on my legs. The coffee was cold. I had my hands around it like it was hot as hell.

I watched an egret land in the middle of the road, and without moving my chair I could see it and around it and everything else through the double wood doors that opened onto the harbor road. The fish house didn’t have screens. Even after the state health department fella walked through the fish house and ticked off offenses and tapped on doors and windows and said, “Screens,” and me saying, “Will do,” (then, later, tacking my copy of the yellow offense sheet to the bathroom wall so I wouldn’t see it) I never did screens. I liked breathing too much. Screens got in the way of breathing and a million other things I could name. With screenless windows, I could smell the sun on the docks. I could smell it when the sun went down and I could smell it when it came back up again.

p. 156-7:

I was talking with Blackburn. His voice was switched off so hard I couldn’t recognize it . . . What’s the matter? I said, and he said nothing was the matter. What made me think something was the matter? He was having an off day. Then Blackburn asked how my criminal prosecution petition on Formosa was doing.

“Well, it’s damn hard! We’ve got plenty of evidence. . . . Least we think it’s evidence. Records that say Formosa doesn’t seem willing to prevent spills, or else they don’t report them like they’re supposed to. One inspection report told where Formosa built an earthen dam to store some acid spill, then when the Water Commission came along, Formosa broke a hole and let it all go. And you think the state fines Formosa for something like that? Heck, no! The files are full of stuff like that, and that’s not even mentioning the files those inspectors down in Corpus gave me. Where’s the enforcement on that one?”

“Wilson! Try a little honey for a change. Sometimes you can catch a fly better with honey than you can wielding a ten-ton sledgehammer. Stick a petition for an environmental impact statement out there! That one isn’t near as intimidating for people to sign, nor for the state to get involved in. Who have you got to sign that criminal petition anyhow? Anybody?”

“Plain ole fishermen. Had to talk their legs off to do it, though. But what else you gonna expect when Formosa’s already got millions plunked down for construction out there? They’ve given out forty-five contracts, and God knows how many went to the local politicians. Mayor in Port Lavaca’s got one. Justice of the peace’s got one. That woman mayor in Point Comfort won’t talk to me anymore. Remember her? She loved me for a while. Now she works for an ex-mayor who’s got a contract. And remember that little reinvestment zone problem Formosa had a month ago? The deal the city council in Point Comfort turned down? Well, forget it. The Chairman himself flew down from New Jersey after that city hall fiasco and gave a big shindig at the Formosa guesthouse, and before you know it he’s telling that Point Comfort mayor he’s gonna just buy her that little wastewater treatment system she wanted so bad. Yeah, the Chairman just walked up to the mayor with that interpreter in tow and tells her he’s gonna build it. ’Cause wasn’t that what she wanted—a million-gallon-a-day treatment facility? He’s gonna donate the whole shebang to the city—the water plant and the land underneath—right after the construction on the Formosa expansion is complete. So Point Comfort turns over the reinvestment zone deal and Formosa gets what it wanted. Next, I guess, it’s the abatement on taxes. Another giveaway thing.”

p. 163-5:

One raw, cold winter evening I . . . called another environmental meeting (with no directors and no officers, only Donna Sue and the divorced Kathy), and instead of Sanchez, I got Formosa with their stash of video cameras and tape recorders and a stenographer carrying her machine in a black leather tote case. The men set up their equipment in the back of the room behind all the folding chairs, and the video man leaned back and looked at the ceiling and said, “This light isn’t helping.” The stenographer came to the front row and unfolded her machine into a miniature desk.

There is sometimes a silence that comes from noise you don’t recognize, and it carries no weight and it has no name. So this new unnamed noise arrived: Jack Wu. Jack was a wasp of a man: much smaller than me, much much smaller than my wrist. I don’t know, he might have been cat-boned from birth.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Excuse me. We would like you to know that we are taping your words. All that you say. Every word you say, we will tape. And if there are lies . . . we will tape those lies. That is all. That is what we have to say to you.”

Three trucks pulled up outside the civic center, and seven men got out and milled around the door. They were oystermen, and I saw them through the glass doors in their oyster clothes, hunkered down against the cold with lit cigarettes and struck matches and nothing in their posture saying they were doing anything more than waiting for a smoke to finish. Finally they filed into the room and sat together, and I picked up a petition I brought with me and took it to them and showed them where to sign their names. They looked tired—as though the wind and the cold had blown out the light in their eyes, and when they signed their names it was slower than a schoolboy would sign his name. When they finished, they picked at their sore hands, torn from throwing oysters and handling heavy dredges all day.

I walked back to the front of the room and I glanced over at Formosa’s crew. The woman with the black typing machine had her hair done in a French twist, and she watched me closer than a lover. She mouthed the words as I said them and typed fast on her black machine.

I said our environmental group was officially asking for an environmental impact statement on the Formosa expansion, and we were putting out a petition to collect signatures to send to state and federal environmental agencies and our elected officials. An environmental impact statement was federal law. We weren’t asking for nothing more than the law required, and we believed that the two-billion-dollar chemical plant expansion, with its half-dozen federal projects, had the potential to create impacts none of us could foresee . . .

Jack Wu stood, and his voice was thin and reedy and came from four rows back. “Formosa has already submitted an independently prepared environmental document to the EPA. It was filed last April. Another impact statement like you have suggested will only be a tiresome repetition of our original document and could delay this project fourteen months to two years. Is that what you want? More delays? A study costing millions more?”

I shook my head. “There’s a big difference between what y’all filed in April and what an environmental impact study with EPA oversight would do. What kind of public comment was involved in your study in April? None, I bet. So who knows what was in it or where you got your information!”

“We do not tell lies, Missus Wilson! It is all science! Facts! We get our facts correct. It is not like you tell everywhere. ‘PVC is harmful! PVC is harmful!’ We can tell you that PVC is, in fact, harmless! It has the same consistency as sugar. Look! We have a little bottle here. Smell it! Pass it around! Smell it! Do you smell an odor? No! It has no odor! It is harmless! So why do we need to be burdened with another long study? It is silly. A waste of time. At this very minute we build a very fine administration building. We have made many landscaping plans that will only beautify the area. Much money has already been spent. We have planted many, many trees! How can this be called damage?”

I could see we weren’t going to agree on anything. We might as well have been from separate planets, with each defending a cause the other knew no words for and wouldn’t have appreciated even if we had. I supposed it was why wars were declared.

p. 180-1:

I walked across the harbor and sat on [oystermen’s] back decks and tried to talk about the pollution from the plants and how the fishermen oughta get involved.

Their argument was, How was gettin’ riled gonna help? Wasn’t nothing gonna stop things the way they were goin’. Only thing it was gonna do was scare folks into believin’ there was something the matter with those bays out there. And then there go the markets. Shot straight to hell in a breadbasket.

Talk like that ran hard down some dirt road in me, and sometimes I believed them. Sometimes I didn’t. Now I didn’t, so I got up and walked back to the fish house. The day wasn’t fit for nothing but cleaning, so I opened the vault and all the doors in the fish house and put sticks in the window to keep them open and let in the salt air. I was scrubbing the fish-house floor with a hard broom when the phone rang, and I turned my back to it and let it keep on ringing. Finally I went and yanked it up. “Whadda you want?”

A voice said, “I’ll tell you a few things, Missus Wilson. But I won’t say it over the phone.”

“Who is this?” I said.

“Let’s just call me Douglas,” he said.

“You’re sayin’ that like it’s not your real name.”

“I won’t say anything over the phone, Missus Wilson. I thought I made that clear. I’ll talk, but not here. Someplace else.”

“How about at least tellin’ me what this is all about?”

“Oh, I think you already know that.”

“Ohhh. So it’s Formosa.”

“I will not talk over the phone, Missus Wilson, but I will say that you are correct there. You are correct.”

“So you live around here? You work over there?”

“That’s a few of the things we can discuss when we meet. Don’t bring anybody else, though. I won’t talk to anybody else. This first time, I want just you.”

p. 187:

Overnight I became a conduit for workers. The calls came from every direction and from every plant in the county. A few workers came by the fish house, carrying a photograph of a chemical spill or a rusted pipe buried deep in the ground; another horror tale of another chemical. Cyanide. Arsenic. Acrylonitrile. Benzene. One day after a few subtle, hush-hush telephone calls, a large, rotund superintendent from Union Carbide brought a map to the fish house and laid it across my desk. That’s where the contamination of the county’s source of drinking water occurred, he said. That’s where they leaked benzene: right under the noses of the Guadalupe–Blanco River Authority. The superintendent’s grandson was mentally retarded, and he could no longer live with himself.

Most workers just wanted to pass on information. They didn’t trust the company to fix it, and didn’t trust OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to protect them. Every worker that walked in the fish-house door snorted when I mentioned OSHA. They believed any information a worker delivered to that agency would eventually wind its way back to the company, and then the worker would be fired. “Hell, woman! There’s no job protection there!” they said.

p. 189:

The sick man said I was gonna have to come to see him instead of the other way around. It was getting worse and worse for him to go anywhere. He wanted to know if I needed any directions getting there, and I said no. I had been to Point Comfort before.

So that was one reason I found his house so easy. The other reason was he lived right across the street from Formosa. Chairman Wang, visiting, probably could have seen us from his office window. There was a fairly new truck sitting in a tiny driveway, and I went around it to get to the door. The worker’s gray, calm face stopped me. He leaned out and said, “Do you see my truck out there? It’s for sale. You don’t need a truck, do you?”

No, I said. I didn’t believe so. Then I came in and sat down in a small chair in a small house with wall-to-wall Christmas lights. I looked around, and he watched as I looked. “That’s my wife’s doin’s,” he said. “She’d never take ’em down if I left it up to her.”

I nodded my head and watched the lights smear like colored water on the ceiling. “Once,” I said, “when it was Christmastime and I first got my driver’s license, I drove around a big town for the first time and I ran every traffic light, thinking it was Christmas lights.”

“I can appreciate that,” he said. “I come from a small town too. A traffic light wasn’t in my vocabulary neither.” Now, he said, sometimes he thought it all was just a bad dream. That somehow he would wake up and it would be nothing but a bad dream. Be back in his own bed in a small town.

“Now, I ain’t nothing but sick all the time. I’m almost finished. I know it. I can’t perform my craft anymore. I can’t weld. I can’t hold my arm up to burn a rod anymore. I have to use my other arm to hold it. My shoulders, my forearms, here. My knees. Everything. I got pains where pains ain’t been invented yet.”

He said he had worked at Formosa for seven or eight years, and all the workers ever thought about was the future of that plant. They knew it was getting worse every day, and that was what worried him. They had two fellas that got hepatitis while working out there. Formosa blamed it on family history and needles and stuff.

“Heck,” he said. “I knew those fellas. I knew they didn’t use needles. But that’s what the Chairman would say. That’s what the safety man over there would say. And you are fighting a losing battle trying to blame it on Formosa. Everything is negligence on the part of the hands.

“Sometimes I got called out two or three times in the middle of the night, and the safety man, he wouldn’t come out in the middle of the night. He would every once in a while, but most of the time he would just okay your permit over the phone to go do this hot work. Not even knowing if the line had been purged. If it was ready for you.

“I would work thirty hours without a break. Go home. Rest a little bit. Go back out and do it again. And the whole time you are doing it, you are opening up reboilers. Exchangers. And they are never purged. As soon as you break a seal and pull it apart, you throw up. There were lots of times I would go home and wake up in the middle of the night and just throw up. Run chills. And just be sick. All the time from what I did that night.

“One leak we had out there was this vessel. I couldn’t believe it. They called me out. It was the middle of the night. I couldn’t believe it. I just live across the street, so I got all the calls out. I am making eighty, ninety, a hundred hours a week. Year after year. So when I go in, I seen all the lights were flashing. I seen this cloud going north. That vessel had a real nice rust hole. Well, not rust. It was eat out from the chemical. But they didn’t want to shut it down. And all I had was a slicker and a face shield to go get into that. I didn’t have any kind of face mask, you know, any kind of breathing or fresh air or anything. I got soaked in it. It was EDC . . .

He took his time talking like there was nothing left for him but a cold, clear morning and he had somebody’s gray mare to ride him through it, if he wanted. He sat on the couch, his hands perfectly still over his belly, and two pink-and-white pompom pillows tucked behind his back. Ever’ now and then he reached and pulled out a pillow and patted the yarn balls back in place, then tucked it back.

He said he didn’t know what he wanted. Maybe make it so every man that worked in a chemical plant was told the truth and tested on a regular basis in the proper way. Maybe make it so a man didn’t have to die just to go to work. He said it was probably too late for him. He thought it was. His wife couldn’t bear to look at him. She couldn’t sleep without tranquilizers. Gave up her sewing. Baking. He pulled the pillow out again, looked at it, then left it in his lap. “This little thing here was the last thing she messed with. Said she wouldn’t touch another one. Ain’t no use, so what for? About the only thing left is those Christmas lights there.”


I never saw him again. He was in the hospital for the last three months of his life, unable to speak and eventually getting so he couldn’t even nod his head. His wife went to the hospital every day, and they would write on a pad. The bad dream never quit for him; he never woke up from nothing. Then, at forty-two, he died and left behind a wife, a truck, and a houseful of Christmas lights across the street from Formosa. The company said his cancer was from nitrates. “Nitrates!” his wife said. “They asked me how much barbecue he ate.”

p. 300-1:

The hunger strike had struck an eternal chord in me, and if I hadn’t known I was a momma with five kids, I’d have believed I was a show at a movie house that had been running for years. That was a short-lived fantasy ’cause the kid thing and the momma thing kept coming up, and since I was a momma of five it had a multiple factor of five. The Texas Chemical Council wondered publicly: Who is taking care of that hunger striker’s kids? That woman starving herself to death certainly isn’t!

I expect that if sore is something you can worm out of yourself when you’re on a near month-old hunger strike, then I was sore. I wondered privately if the Texas Chemical Council had ever asked Cesar Chávez or other male activists about their kids’ whereabouts. No, I didn’t believe so. It was probably just women that got asked that question. Still, I missed seeing the kids, but Baby said hell would freeze over before he’d bring the kids to me. And don’t think about coming home to see them neither, he said. Twenty-four days on a hunger strike and twenty-four days of not being home was too much for any man to take.

Eventually that changed and so did Baby’s pale-water eyes. It happened one early Friday morning when a helicopter flew over the dusty oak trees in the front yard. The craft hovered, then shots were fired. Whether the shots came from a man let out on the ground or one who simply fired from the open door of the helicopter, it was never known. Baby’s momma had went down the road to mail some letters, and the bullets whined past and hit the ground and sent up small dust clouds at her feet. The dog was shot twice, one bullet exiting his neck and the other lodging in his leg. The dog limped over to the trailer door of my momma-in-law and bled all over her front porch.

p. 388:

I didn’t fight all the time. I went out on my little skiff in the mornings and contemplated the birds and the fish and the elusive porpoises. Then the corporations messed with my mind where it hurt even more: Seismograph boats hunting for oil and gas appeared on the bays! They strung dynamite charges hither and yonder and proceeded to blow up the bay, and when a few fish blew out of the water, more knowledgeable heads than theirs decided that they needed airboats (the equivalent of jet planes on the water) to chase the fish away from the dynamite. So five zipping airboats met me every morning with their racket, and there went our fish. The fish didn’t return to the bays for a year; the oil and gas exploration in the bays resumed and goes on to this day. It was within this window of opportunity that the idea for An Unreasonable Woman was born. What else to do but write and starve—a starving writer. I didn’t invent it.


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