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September 27, 2005
Book Review---An Unreasonable Woman: The True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas
    by William Baue

Shrimper-turned-grassroots environmental activist Diane Wilson transforms her experience fighting corporate toxic emissions into a literary work of art imbued with the rugged beauty of the Texas coast.


An Unreasonable Woman is an unreasonable book. A reasonable author would use correct grammar. Diane Wilson don't--she slips from "proper English" into the seaside syntax of her native Texas tongue at odd intervals, sometimes while explicating a complex wastewater regulation. A reasonable editor would exercise restraint with metaphors, excising the overabundance of similes that defy expectation, such as Ms. Wilson's deft evoking of the subtlest of human frailties through the description of a flap of a gray heron's wing. Thankfully, Chelsea Green editors retain Ms. Wilson's rich prose that connects the most mundane doings of people to those of nature to illuminate deeper understanding of both.

This unreasonableness is a conscious, or unconscious, manifestation of the book’s core subject. Reasonable owners, managers, legislators, regulators, judges, and lawyers would hold corporations accountable for their toxic emissions. This book reveals that this is not always the case. Rather, it describes how a single woman must abandon reason to do "unreasonable" acts--hunger strikes and other more direct actions--to hold corporations and their supporters to account.

Although it tells an all-too-true story, this book does not read like some nonfiction that bludgeons readers with data. Ms. Wilson focuses on truth over facts--though she does not spurn the latter, as evidenced by descriptions of stockpiling shrimp boxes full of documents acquired by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In fact, it is the revelation of data that sets her activism in motion.

"A shrimper gave me this newspaper article--he had three different types of cancer and huge lumps all over his arms that were like tennis balls underneath the skin," Ms. Wilson said in a magazine interview. "The article was about the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which was the first time industry in the US had to report the emissions they were putting out in the air, on the land, and into the water--it was the first the public ever saw of it."

The 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), enacted by Congress in response to the deadly 1984 Union Carbide chemical release in Bhopal, India, mandated that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) create TRI.

"It said we were the number one county in the nation for toxic disposal--our county is real small, not know for anything at all, and it was mentioned in this article four times," she continued. "That's not the type of information you can sit on and say, 'I didn't see it"--I moved on it, and so that's where all my work started, right there."

Ms. Wilson meets almost universal opposition to her attempts to find out more on toxic emissions from the chemical plants in Calhoun County. The economic development associated with these plants--owned by Alcoa (ticker: AA), BP (BP), Dupont (DD), privately-owned Formosa Plastics, and now-Dow (DOW) subsidiary Union Carbide--overshadows their alarming, TRI-proven pollution emissions. What little support she finds--a Houston environmental lawyer, an Austin environmental activist--eventually splinters from in-fighting over how best to deal with her ultimate target, Formosa, which is constructing a new $2 billion plant before securing permits.

Her most significant support comes from unexpected places--injured workers too intimidated by company retaliation to report toxic spills to authorities, Texas Water Commission investigators who leak damning files that their superiors have suppressed. However, the strength of her gathered evidence proves futile against the political machinery supporting the new plant. Ms. Wilson comes full circle when a lawyer from EPA, the organization responsible for TRI and enforcing environmental regulations, mistakes her on the phone for a Formosa lawyer similarly named Diane and reveals numerous violations the agency is overlooking.

When both allies and due process fail her, Ms. Wilson takes matters into her own hands. The climax of the book involves the SeaBee (her 24-foot shrimp boat), Formosa's wastewater discharge pipe, her game-warden-fugitive-turned-county-commissioner-candidate-turned-Formosa-worker brother Sanchez, three Coast Guard boats, and 12 protesting shrimpers.

Without spoiling the suspense, Ms. Wilson survives and ultimately succeeds in forcing Formosa and other Calhoun County chemical plants to shift to zero discharge, a costlier but environmentally-preferable form of emission. However, focusing on these individual victories would obscure her larger accomplishment of inspiring readers to act on their conscience. An Unreasonable Woman has the force of a sea squall, the colors of not-quite sunrise, and the passion of blood drawn directly from her heart, with the authenticity of ink from a bay squid. While she counts herself as "nobody particular," if she can act in defiance of embedded power and in support of common people and our silent earth, so can anybody!

 

 
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