The Battle for Lavaca Bay

On a windy day last March, Diane Wilson planned to sink her shrimp boat in Lavaca Bay, one of the state's most important estuaries and a major nursery for shrimp, oysters and fish. While she loved the Seabee, a 42-foot-long wood and fiberglass trawler with which she had fished for 13 years, she also loved the bay. And she hated what was happening to it.

For four years in the late '60s, the Alcoa plant at Point Comfort had dumped so much mercury in the bay's waters that this February the Environmental Protection Agency declared parts of Lavaca Bay Texas' first underwater Superfund site. Because of the mercury-contaminated sediment, prime parts of the bay are closed to crabbing and fishing. Wilson wasn't sure anyone should be shrimping near the mercury site either, although that wasn't illegal. Not that there had been much of a shrimping season recently. Last season the brown shrimp simply hadn't shown up, possibly due to the freshwater runoff from record rains. But the white shrimp, which thrive on fresh water, had also disappeared. And dolphins, brown pelicans and turtles had been dying in record numbers, although no one knew exactly why.

Diane Wilson had her suspicions, though. Alcoa had been bad enough, but then in 1988 Formosa Plastic of Taiwan began building the world's largest polychloride vinyl plant right next to the Alcoa site. Formosa had destroyed the aquatic life in the creek running behind its plant and had released vinyl chloride, a major carcinogen, into the air.

Since September of last year, Formosa had been discharging contaminated wastewater into the upper bay through a 2,100-foot-long pipe less than a mile north of Alcoa's mercury-laden sediment. To dilute the discharge, Formosa cut through an oyster reef and dug a 12 foot deep basin into the shallow bay at the pipe's end, a basin into which wastewater was sprayed through a diffuser.

Wilson had had enough. It was right where the Formosa wastewater spewed into Lavaca Bay that she wanted to sink the Seabee. Only its mast would protrude, a monument to the bay's suffering. Wilson planned the sacrifice of her trawler to coincide with a floating demonstration of 90 fishing boats that would block the shipping lane into Formosa's Point Comfort docks. She would move out at night. The sinking would require coordination, reasonable weather and a Coast Guard asleep at the wheel.

Since Wilson didn't want to add to the bay's contamination, one of her neighbors removed the Seabee's diesel engine and fuel tanks. But she had a hard time finding someone who would give her crippled boat a tow from her home port of Seadrift to the sinking site. While the bay's fishermen and shrimpers resented the threat of increased pollution, the area's politicians, business and civic leaders and many workers saw Formosa Plastic as the economic savior of Calhoun County. They wanted nothing to do with Wilson and her war.

Actually, "war" wasn't a particularly extreme description of what had been happening. Wilson's boat had been sabotaged twice. Her dog had been shot by someone in a helicopter flying over her rural house. The shop window of one of her Vietnamese allies had been shot out. So had the car window of rancher Marian Traylor, who felt Formosa had ruined her land.

When Wilson first began her battles for Lavaca Bay in 1988, community leaders had offered her jobs and money and urged her to be a "good citizen." As she persisted, some of her neighbors vilified her as an extremist. The Port Lavaca newspaper wrote articles about her lack of community support and about how she had allied herself with professional environmentalists from outside the area. Her sister told her she needed counseling. Her marriage was in bad shape. Even one of her own supporters wondered why she wasn't home with her five children. Sometimes in her dreams she would see a man standing in the doorway with a gun, about to shoot her.

Yet as the 45-year-old Wilson painted the Seabee a virgin white for its last voyage, never had she felt more certain that she was pursuing her destiny. She had filed a legal brief with an administrative judge in Washington to stop Formosa's wastewater discharge. If he ruled in her favor, then a penniless net person, as she called herself, would have shut down a $1.3 billion plant owned by one of the richest men in the world. But she would not count on legal action alone to save Lavaca Bay. She had to do something to attract attention. She had to keep the pressure on, even if it killed her.

You don't have to be a fourth-generation fisherman to understand why Wilson has become such a vigorous defender of Lavaca Bay. Situated about 120 miles southwest of Houston, Lavaca Bay contains the freshwater heart of the 400-square-mile Matagorda Bay system, a natural resource of immense value. One of the eight major bay systems of the Texas coast, Matagorda Bay is the next bay south of Galveston Bay. Matagorda Bay offers an important recreational area for Houstonians who keep second homes there and for those who enjoy its fishing, hunting and beaches. The recreational and commercial fishing alone have been valued at $140 million a year. The bay system is also home to endangered or threatened wildlife, including the whooping crane, bald eagle, brown pelican, piping plover, reddish egret and five species of sea turtle.

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Michael Berryhill