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A Lifelong Shrimper, Fisherwoman & Activist
Meet This 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
Think you’re too old to become an activist? Think again.
A lifelong shrimper and fourth generation fisherwoman, she began her environmental activism after reading an Associated Press article in 1989 that listed her county, Calhoun County, Texas, as the most toxic county in the U.S.
After watching the local fisheries collapse, she became determined to protect the region from pollution and restore the devastated marine ecosystem.
Turns out Texas is the nation’s largest chemical-producing state, with most industry located on the state’s Gulf Coast. There are 46 petrochemical plants operating in the region—the largest concentration in the country—constituting 42 percent of the U.S. petrochemical capacity.
Due to the extreme air and water pollution from the petrochemical plants and oil refineries, the area is known as the “Cancer Belt.”
The Goldman Environmental Prize honors ordinary people who take extraordinary actions to protect our planet and this year Diane is being honored.
In December 2019, she won a landmark case against Formosa Plastics, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, for the illegal dumping of toxic plastic waste on Texas’ Gulf Coast.
The $50 million settlement is the largest award in a citizen suit against an industrial polluter in the history of the U.S. Clean Water Act.
As a part of the settlement, Formosa Plastics agreed to reach “zero-discharge” of plastic waste from its Point Comfort factory, pay penalties until discharges cease, and fund remediation of affected local wetlands, beaches, and waterways.
Hurdles & Nurdles
Formosa Plastics’ Point Comfort plant, located along Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek, started operations in 1983.
The plant is Formosa’s largest U.S. plastic facility and the region’s biggest manufacturer of polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, and polyethylene, which are used in making straws, plastic bags, pipes, and “nurdles.”
What’s a “nurdle,” you might be wondering?
More than 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year by converting fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas into tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles.”
Nurdles are used for manufacturing plastic products of all kinds, from water bottles to car parts. An estimated 230,000 tons of nurdles enter the world’s oceans annually due to spills and discharge from petrochemical facilities.
By 2050, experts predict that there may be more plastic by weight than fish in the world’s oceans. Gah! That’s a terrible thought.
Formosa’s single plant produces more than one trillion nurdles per day, in a process that releases toxins and heavy metals into air and water.
In the area surrounding the Formosa plant, nurdles have flooded the waterways, significantly affecting marine habitats and wildlife. Because nurdles are similar in size and shape to fish eggs, they are often mistaken for food by marine animals—and ingestion commonly leads to starvation.
The nurdles are also contaminated with mercury from the nearby Lavaca Bay Mercury Superfund site. The Lavaca Bay area is home to more than 400 bird species, dolphins, and sea turtles and once had a thriving oyster and shrimp fishery.
Standing Up for Her Waterways
Diane first started to investigate the contents of wastewater from Formosa’s Point Comfort plant in 1989 after noticing a drastic reduction in her shrimp catch and reading reports about periodic chemical spills in the vicinity. She began conducting research of wastewater from the plant and organized direct actions.
Her demonstrations led Formosa to sign a “zero-discharge” agreement for toxic waste but, due to a lack of enforcement by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the plant continued business as usual. Formosa continued to rack up safety violations and fines following ongoing spills of toxic chemicals. In 2005, a plant explosion injured 11 workers.
In 2008, a former Formosa employee-turned-whistleblower contacted Diane about the plant’s plastic pollution, alleging that Formosa internally manipulated clean water violations that were not reported to state regulators.
As a result, she decided to focus her efforts on the plastic nurdles being discharged from the plant. Diane conducted door-to-door outreach to former Formosa plant employees and received anonymous phone calls from workers documenting violations.
She identified discharge points, organized volunteer teams to conduct near-daily sampling by foot and kayak, and collected more than 40 million nurdles in four years. Diane and her team documented violations with more than 7,000 photos and videos.
When TCEQ stopped responding to the continual barrage of evidence being sent in by Diane and the lack of enforcement persisted, she decided to pursue a citizen lawsuit against Formosa.
In 2015, she enlisted legal assistance through Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, filed official complaints with TCEQ, and used Freedom of Information Act to access internally reported violations.
By 2017, Diane and her team formally sued Formosa in federal court for violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act.
On the day before the trial in March 2019, she led a protest tour in kayaks around the facility. For court proceedings, she enlisted the support of a storm water expert, marine biologist, former state environmental official, and former workers from the plant to provide expert witness.
She had continued weekly monitoring and sample collecting until the day of the trial and, on the first day, personally presented 2,400 samples in court.
In December 2019, a federal judge found Formosa to be a “serial offender” with “extensive, historical, and repetitive” violations of the Clean Water Act, handing Diane and her coalition a solid legal victory and a historic $50 million settlement.
You can watch more of her story in this 4-part documentary:
From Anger to Action
Because of the ruling, Formosa has been obligated to carry out extensive remediation measures to repair damaged coastal habitats and has invested more than $100 million to reach “zero-discharge” of plastics at the facility.
The consent decree resulting from the lawsuit created a trust with the $50 million settlement in order to fund research, construction of a local park, and environmental education initiatives; rehabilitate the Lavaca Bay shoreline and area wetlands; and develop a sustainable fisheries cooperative for local fishermen.
Diane has refused to personally accept any of the settlement funds.
Diane continues to engage in the ongoing enforcement of her groundbreaking legal victory. She leads nurdle patrols each week to ensure that waste discharges are measured.
One observer noted that, “if she is not in her kayak, she is walking in knee deep water along the factory’s fence line.”
The continued monitoring of both Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek has brought an additional $8.4 million in fines levied against Formosa to date—all of which go into the settlement trust.
Though TCEQ strengthened discharge requirements for companies manufacturing and handling plastic nurdles in 2021, Diane has continued to push for stronger enforcement and both state-wide and national “zero-discharge” rules for all plastics facilities.
Her story is so inspiring and her award well-deserved! Of course, the true prize is protecting her beloved waterways. Her work shows how taking action matters.
How You Can Help
Hold corporations accountable for plastic pollution!
Visit the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper to learn more about Diane’s campaign against Formosa Plastics in Texas: www.nomorenurdles.org
Check out the work of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, an advocacy organization that collaborates with an expansive global alliance of organizations, businesses, and individuals to create a more just, equitable, regenerative world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org
Take action with Beyond Plastics: www.beyondplastics.org/act
Inspired by Diane’s actions? What’s one takeaway from her story that you can apply in your own community? Let us know in the comments below.