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An Unreasonable Woman

How an ordinary Texas woman forced a giant chemical company to change its ways.
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from "An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas," by Diane Wilson. Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimp boat captain, became an environmental activist after she discovered that her home of Calhoun County, Texas was the number one toxic polluter in the country. During her battle to stop Formosa Plastics from dumping in the bay, many of the plant's former workers sought her out to tell their stories.

The sick man said I was gonna have to come to see him instead of the other way around. It was getting worse and worse for him to go anywhere. He wanted to know if I needed any directions getting there, and I said no. I had been to Point Comfort before. 

So that was one reason I found his house so easy. The other reason was he lived right across the street from Formosa. Chairman Wang, visiting, probably could have seen us from his office window. There was a fairly new truck sitting in a tiny driveway, and I went around it to get to the door. The worker's gray, calm face stopped me. He leaned out and said, "Do you see my truck out there? It's for sale. You don't need a truck, do you?" 

No, I said. I didn't believe so. Then I came in and sat down in a small chair in a small house with wall-to-wall Christmas lights. I looked around, and he watched as I looked. "That's my wife's doin's," he said. "She'd never take 'em down if I left it up to her." 

I nodded my head and watched the lights smear like colored water on the ceiling. "Once," I said, "when it was Christmastime and I first got my driver's license, I drove around a big town for the first time and I ran every traffic light, thinking it was Christmas lights." 

"I can appreciate that," he said. "I come from a small town too. A traffic light wasn't in my vocabulary neither." Now, he said, sometimes he thought it all was just a bad dream. That somehow he would wake up and it would be nothing but a bad dream. Be back in his own bed in a small town.  "Now, I ain't nothing but sick all the time. I'm almost finished. I know it. I can't perform my craft anymore. I can't weld. I can't hold my arm up to burn a rod anymore. I have to use my other arm to hold it. My shoulders, my forearms, here. My knees. Everything. I got pains where pains ain't been invented yet." 

He said he had worked at Formosa for seven or eight years, and all the workers ever thought about was the future of that plant. They knew it was getting worse every day, and that was what worried him. They had two fellas that got hepatitis while working out there. Formosa blamed it on family history and needles and stuff. 

"Heck," he said. "I knew those fellas. I knew they didn't use needles. But that's what the Chairman would say. That's what the safety man over there would say. And you are fighting a losing battle trying to blame it on Formosa. Everything is negligence on the part of the hands. 

"Sometimes I got called out two or three times in the middle of the night, and the safety man, he wouldn't come out in the middle of the night. He would every once in a while, but most of the time he would just okay your permit over the phone to go do this hot work. Not even knowing if the line had been purged. If it was ready for you. 

"I would work thirty hours without a break. Go home. Rest a little bit. Go back out and do it again. And the whole time you are doing it, you are opening up reboilers. Exchangers. And they are never purged. As soon as you break a seal and pull it apart, you throw up. There were lots of times I would go home and wake up in the middle of the night and just throw up. Run chills. And just be sick. All the time from what I did that night. 

"One leak we had out there was this vessel. I couldn't believe it. They called me out. It was the middle of the night. I couldn't believe it. I just live across the street, so I got all the calls out. I am making eighty, ninety, a hundred hours a week. Year after year. So when I go in, I seen all the lights were flashing. I seen this cloud going north. That vessel had a real nice rust hole. Well, not rust. It was eat out from the chemical. But they didn't want to shut it down. And all I had was a slicker and a face shield to go get into that. I didn't have any kind of face mask, you know, any kind of breathing or fresh air or anything. I got soaked in it. It was EDC [ethylene dichloride]...."

He took his time talking like there was nothing left for him but a cold, clear morning and he had somebody's gray mare to ride him through it, if he wanted. He sat on the couch, his hands perfectly still over his belly, and two pink-and-white pompom pillows tucked behind his back. Ever' now and then he reached and pulled out a pillow and patted the yarn balls back in place, then tucked it back.  He said he didn't know what he wanted. Maybe make it so every man that worked in a chemical plant was told the truth and tested on a regular basis in the proper way. Maybe make it so a man didn't have to die just to go to work. He said it was probably too late for him. He thought it was. His wife couldn't bear to look at him. She couldn't sleep without tranquilizers. Gave up her sewing. Baking. He pulled the pillow out again, looked at it, then left it in his lap.

"This little thing here was the last thing she messed with. Said she wouldn't touch another one. Ain't no use, so what for? About the only thing left is those Christmas lights there."   

I never saw him again. He was in the hospital for the last three months of his life, unable to speak and eventually getting so he couldn't even nod his head. His wife went to the hospital every day, and they would write on a pad. The bad dream never quit for him; he never woke up from nothing. Then, at forty-two, he died and left behind a wife, a truck, and a houseful of Christmas lights across the street from Formosa. The company said his cancer was from nitrates. "Nitrates!" his wife said. "They asked me how much barbecue he ate." 

Reprinted with the permission of Chelsea Green Publishing Company.