Switch Hitter

In many ways, attorney Jim Blackburn has been the strong right arm of the environmental movement in Houston for decades. The Rice professor has fought landfills and concrete batching plants and even helped force the state to come up with a plan to deal with Houston's dirty air. He's won accolades and awards all round.

But a book tour by fourth-generation Seadrift shrimper Diane Wilson is dredging up a part of Blackburn's past in which his actions, to put the best possible face on them, don't appear quite so noble. Although they certainly started out that way.

In the late 1980s, Wilson and everyone else making a living on the waters around Seadrift knew about the Alcoa Superfund site in the middle of Lavaca Bay. Crabbing and oystering were off-limits because of extreme mercury pollution. Unexplained dolphin kills were in the news. In 1989, Formosa Plastics, which operated a routinely fined plant in Point Comfort, announced it was gearing up for a massive $1.3 billion expansion.

In post-oil-bust Texas the proposal had plenty of elected cheerleaders. U.S. Senator Phil Gramm and others roped together more than $200 million in state tax breaks and other incentives to make sure the expansion didn't happen at the company's Louisiana plant instead.

Soon a minority of local residents -- with Wilson as their spokeswoman -- mobilized to fight. Blackburn helped Wilson found the Calhoun County Resource Watch and offered his legal services free of charge.

With new permits being filed and construction under way, the war with Formosa went on for three years. When a deal was finally reached, it didn't hold long. Formosa attorneys soon started retracting language regarding workers' rights and a buyout program for those near the plant. Wilson and Rick Abraham, director of the grassroots environmental group Texans United and the other plaintiff in the suit, walked out. Blackburn wanted to salvage the deal. His clients refused. He went to Wilson, asking her to release him as her attorney.

She did, feeling guilty for taking so much of his time and never being able to pay him.

Abraham wasn't as understanding -- not when he found out Blackburn had been meeting with Formosa behind their backs. He reported Blackburn to the Texas State Bar, but the bar never took any action after Wilson signed an affidavit stating the negotiations (which concluded successfully a few months after the initial breakdown) had continued with her knowledge.

"It said something like I knew Blackburn was negotiating and…that we couldn't agree on certain issues and so I was totally in accord with him," Wilson says. "That wasn't true, but I signed it anyway because I felt I owed him something."

Of course what she didn't know then, but discovered later, is that Blackburn wasn't just talking to Formosa. He was taking $200,000 from the company as well, which never came out at the time. Thirteen years later, that -- and last week's explosion at the South Texas facility that injured eight workers -- gives someone promoting a book on the Formosa agreement with a potential movie in the offing a lot to talk about.

Blackburn says he hasn't read all of Wilson's book, An Unreasonable Woman, but he's heard reports. "It's a hard time to relive, but I looked at what I thought I needed to," he says. Wilson, off on an extended book tour and dreaming ahead to the film, pictures Danny DeVito in the role of Blackburn. "He's short," Wilson says. "And he's got those little black eyes."

Actually, Wilson's isn't the first book on the topic. Author Molly Bang wrote a children's book, Nobody Particular, about the Formosa agreement in 2000. Publisher Henry Holt and Company recalled 15,000 copies when Blackburn threatened suit over an unflattering page that showed him telling Wilson, "Formosa's going to pay me for this…So I can no longer be your lawyer."

Of course, it was a "fictive invention," Bang readily admits. The conversation never took place. Blackburn never told Wilson he was taking money from Formosa. She found that out from Bang in a phone call almost eight years after the fact.

Blackburn says he believes Wilson encouraged him to go on alone with the deal and vacillated about whether she was in or out. By Wilson's count, she changed her mind only once. That was after Blackburn came calling one night a few days before they'd be gathering at the capitol to sign what would be hailed as a landmark environmental agreement with one of the world's most in-your-face polluters.

Governor Ann Richards could show she could stand up for the environment and not get in the way of job creation. Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics could show it shared the public's concern for the health of the state's bays. Blackburn would be at the center of it all. After weeks of resisting, Wilson had agreed to join in.