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.

But at the last minute she flipped again, this time in dramatic fashion. The night before the ceremony, she went out on her boat, where she tried to kill herself, washing down sleeping pills with cheap wine. Other than making her feel horrible, it didn't work. She slept straight through the next day's ceremony.

Now an activist of the first degree, credentialed by arrests in both New York and Washington, D.C., for antiwar activity and a habit of chaining herself to stuff, Wilson says she and Blackburn have yet to talk through those painful events. They came up once -- in a Mexican restaurant in Palacios -- and the conversation grew so loud so fast the pair was almost asked to leave, she says.

Wilson is finally seeing some windfall from her years of civic action. By her count, she's getting $9,000 for the book and the movie rights. If a film is ever made, she'll see another $50,000.

Formosa paid Blackburn $75,000 for his work. The company funneled another $138,000 to him through donations to environmental groups that owed him money. Without that money he would not have been able to participate in some of the more recent legal fights he has taken up, he says.

Today, Blackburn not only defends the deal he struck, he continues to promote it as a model that could soothe the toxicity of industry across the Texas coast and better the environment. "It's one of the best things, in terms of achievements, that I've achieved professionally," he says, "and I feel like I've done good!"

The Blackburn-Formosa Agreement, as it was styled, did foster improvements in many areas. An extensive audit of the plant, required by the agreement, resulted in repairs and operational changes that reduced toxic emissions for years.

The agreement also set up a three-person technical review commission, on which Blackburn serves, endowed with a binding legal authority to make Formosa adhere to auditors' recommendations on matters of health and safety.

"I think it had an incredible impact on that facility," Blackburn says. "It shook up Formosa from top to bottom. I think that Formosa is a much better company for that agreement. And I think basically Lavaca Bay has not suffered because of those agreements; I think that the workers are in better shape, and I think Point Comfort is in better shape."

Neil Carmen, air director for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, says much of the criticism of Blackburn is unjustified. "He has done a lot of good down in the Houston area and Gulf Coast fighting water, wastewater, landfills, and you can't do it free. It costs money to hire experts and it costs money to get documents…It's not a cheap process."

Austin environmental attorney Rick Lowerre also sympathizes with Blackburn, suggesting a "purity test" is too often employed against environmental lawyers. "I think we all recognize that if you try to do something -- if you represent an industry or you try to work with an industry -- you run the risk you'll be tainted, for some people. So then your question is: What do you decide? What's good for you or what's good for the environment?"

But transparency is a huge issue, too. And a major criticism of Blackburn's midnight deal with Formosa is that it keeps information about plant operations from ever reaching the public and excludes the public from the process. While the commissioners (Blackburn, a University of Texas prof and a Formosa plant manager) have access to all the auditors' information, the citizens panel receives only summaries. A confidentiality clause limits the information commissioners can share. Opponents of the agreement referred to it at the time as creating a "cone of silence" around the company.

Although she talks about it on tour, Wilson didn't include the $200,000 Formosa payment in her book. Any movie on the subject would be another matter, of course. Abraham says he's close to publishing his own book on those years. His version is filled with names, dates and other data frustratingly absent from Wilson's folksy martyr narrative. He doesn't recoil from talking candidly about money matters, either.

Blackburn continues to see things differently. "Diane did a hunger strike, and I created an agreement. That was sort of my contribution in our partnership, and it was not going to be able to be implemented because of union concessions. And that wasn't what I signed up to fight for."

Despite all this, and even though they haven't spoken in months, Wilson still considers Blackburn a friend -- a friend who had a bad moment. "I think in his heart of hearts he knows it's the worst thing he ever did. I think in his heart of hearts. I don't think he'll admit that, though."

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Greg Harman