Switch Hitter

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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