By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
The morning of the announcement, Blackburn waited for Wilson for a long time in the capitol rotunda. When she didn't show, he headed for the press conference. In the middle of the announcement, Greenpeace interrupted with a piece of guerrilla theater in which Blackburn was characterized by an actor as a money-grubbing lawyer with Formosa dollar bills pasted all over him. The union also issued a news release claiming he had sold out. It was the darkest moment in Blackburn's career as an environmental lawyer.
The night before she was to meet Blackburn in Austin, Wilson experienced her own dark night of the soul. She took the Seabee out into Lavaca Bay and stared into the black waters.
"I was ripped totally in two," she says. "I had reached the bottom. My phone was being disconnected. My husband and I were on the verge of a divorce. I sat right on the edge of the stern wishing someone would throw me over."
She stayed in the bay until 4 in the morning, knowing that she just couldn't go through with her promise to Blackburn. She couldn't sign the Formosa agreement. She was on her own, without her guardian ally.
The place from which Wilson plans her environmental strategy is a 100-year-old house that she and her husband, Leslie, moved to 20 acres of land near the fishing village of Seadrift. In a littered front office, Wilson carries on the business of the Calhoun County Resource Watch. In one corner sits a battered copier and in the other a fax machine with a phone that a retired government secretary gave her. She has a cheap portable typewriter on which she types her legal briefs and the extensive interviews with plant workers who frequently phone her with information about problems in the Formosa plant. Wilson is on the phone constantly. A dozen boxes of files are scattered about, through which she negotiates almost intuitively.
She has turned her lack of resources into an asset. Middle-class people, she has discovered, are often afraid to speak out, and the poor are so discouraged they are apathetic.
"Gandhi says it's a myth that you have to have money or people to do anything," she says. "You eventually need people. But most people, if they have no money, don't do anything."
Pinned to the unpainted plasterboard is a photocopy of her with former Texas commissioner of agriculture Jim Hightower, "the only politician who ever endorsed me." A small cloth banner testifies to her trip to Bhopal, India, where she was part of an international convention on the environment near the site of the world's worst industrial accident, a Union Carbide release that killed 3,000 people and injured thousands more.
A white banner bearing red Chinese characters adorns the front wall, a souvenir of her trip to Taiwan in 1991 to meet environmental protestors. Referring to Formosa's proposed expansion on Taiwan, the banner reads "Stop Plant No. 6 or Die."
In Taiwan, she said, she saw wastewater going directly into a river that had been turned so acidic that she could see heat rising from it. She saw a Formosa truck dumping waste directly into a river. She saw waste in the edges of the streets.
"That tour radicalized me," she says. Not that Wilson hadn't taken some risks before on behalf of her beliefs. After growing up on the bays and bayous of Seadrift, she spent a year in college in San Antonio and enlisted in the Army as a medic.
She was sent to Fort Sam Houston during the height of the Vietnam War. There she saw the demoralized wounded, evacuated from Vietnam. She worked in a hospital ward thick with marijuana smoke. To show their gratitude for the care she gave, the injured soldiers would try to give her drugs.
"They were completely destroyed spiritually," she said. "Eventually I went to the colonel and said, 'I'm not playing this game anymore.' "
She left the base without permission and went to Toronto for three months, came back and was dishonorably discharged. Her brother, a jet pilot during the war, urged her to seek clemency, but Wilson is proud of the discharge.
Clipped to the lampshade in her office is a quotation from environmental writer Edward Abbey that might serve as Wilson's operating philosophy: "At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land, and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers and corporations, 'thus far and no further.' If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, 'If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behavior.' "
Perhaps it is her Cherokee blood, which makes her hair blue-black, that makes her so stubborn about the ownership of resources. Some people have characterized her protests as those of a desperate commercial fisherman who wants her livelihood back. But her obstinacy runs deeper than that.
"There is no money I want, no job I want," she says. "All I see is that we are killing ourselves and our planet. I know what I want. It's that bay, that's what I want. They've got a lot of stuff," she says, meaning the industrialists and politicians and business leaders who want more petrochemical plants in the area, "but I promise you, they won't get the bay."
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