None of us knew what a real paycheck looked like, but to Momma a real job was anything that didn’t have nothing to do with the bay, because everybody knew if you wanted to make a dime on the bay, you’d have to bleed real hard. …bad times were like the salted peanuts shrimpers ate with their beer…
Diane Wilson’s weather-beaten face was just another in a crowd of shrimpers working the bays and bayous of the Gulf Intercoastal Waterways, out of Seadrift, Texas, Calhoun County. Her shrimp-boat was a fourth-generation effort that barely made ends meet, even when the shrimp were running high.
Then the shrimp began dying. So did the dolphins that fed on them. And like the other shrimpers, Wilson at first ignored the Toxic Release Inventory report that placed Calhoun County at the top for all kinds of toxic materials. First in the land. A horrible stew of alphabet-poisons was streaming into the Lavaca Bay, and from there to the Gulf, from poorly-regulated coastal industries in Texas and Louisiana.
The communities Wilson describes are often actively on the side of the polluters, because as fishing becomes poor, the factories are the only resource for families needing income. So we can have the cruel juxtaposition of dying shrimp fisheries with a municipal dinner to honor the chairman of one of those factories releasing toxins into the bay.
This is an uncomfortable book to read, for many reasons. One, certainly, is that the author, Diane Wilson, is an uncomfortable woman, unreasonable and confrontational. The title of the autobiographical description of her fight against rampant polluters in Seadrift, Texas, is perfectly chosen. Wilson showed herself willing to take whatever steps were required to expose her opponent, Formosa Plastics, as the cause of the poor shrimp harvests. She is also ardently pro-union, which allowed her opponents to dismiss many of her complaints are “designed to force a union on the industry.”
Another reason for the reader’s discomfort is that it is very hard to be comfortable with the kind of corporate behavior Wilson encountered, documented, and fought in her Texas Gulf town. The materials they released into the shrimp-fishing waters of the Coastal Inland Waterways were not more toxic than the way Formosa Plastics treated the fishing community and their unofficial spokeswoman, Diane Wilson. Faced with someone who could not be swayed by community opinion, and would not accept a bribe, and who moreover was beginning to get sympathetic press with a hunger strike, Formosa Plastics was finally forced to sit down at the bargaining table with this unreasonable woman.
In telling the story of her fight to force industrial plants in Calhoun County to stop their release of toxins into the Gulf, Wilson cuts herself no slack. She describes quitting a job at Union Carbide (echoes of Bhopal here) because “every day when I came home and washed my hair, the water turned yellow…” Even if you can be comfortable with Formosa and Wilson, the horrendous litany of toxins released into the bays and bayous of the coastal waterways is calculated to appall.
By turns poetic and brutal, An Unreasonable Woman is a stunning chronicle of one woman’s fight against a Goliath on the Gulf. I warn you, you will begin to develop a respect for this woman, even if you cannot agree with her point of view. Even though she is unsympathetic, and thoroughly unreasonable, you will end by giving her the due she has earned.