My name is Diane Wilson. I’m a fourth generation fisherwoman from the Texas Gulf Coast and I’ve been on a boat since I was eight. In 1989, my tiny county in Texas was named the number one county in the nation for total toxins to the land, accounting for half the waste that Texas generated. Since that time, I’ve become a self-appointed watchdog and watched the chemical, oil, and gas corporations lay a thousand deaths at the feet of the Gulf. I hate to say it, but what I’ve seen with the actions of BP in the Gulf is nothing new. The releases, the lies, the cover-ups, the skimping on safety, the deaths, the nonexistent documents, the ‘swinging door’ with regulators. What is new is the massive nature of the BP oil catastrophe and the fact that it can’t be covered up. It’s everywhere, from 5,000 feet down to miles upon miles across and then spread in the ocean’s currents. This elephant can’t be swept under the carpet, but I’m sure if BP could, BP would.
I have an injured workers group that is basically thrown out workers that got canned after they got sick, injured, or tried to make changes that the company didn’t want. Some were whistleblowers and companies sure don’t like that. Nobody wants these guys and there’s nobody for them to talk to except me – a high school educated fisherwoman with a pile of kids and a broke down truck. One of my injured workers was a shift supervisor in a PVC unit of Formosa Plastics, one of the biggest chemical plants on the Texas Gulf Coast and someone I’ve fought for twenty years. One night, during his supervision, there was a 16,000 vinyl chloride release. Vinyl chloride is a cancer causing and targets the liver, lungs, brain and blood-forming organs. Vinyl chloride can give you liver cancer. The OSHA worker standard is l part per million for an average 8-hour period. If one pound of vinyl chloride is released, it is reportable to the EPA. Formosa’s upper management told the supervisor to lie about the release. Get the numbers down. So Formosa reported 2.7 lbs. to the EPA.
Another worker said his supervisors were sometimes dumping outright or siphoning material out of test samples. In general, the company was manipulating and hiding wastewater data. Sometimes gauge needles were bent to keep the graph from showing how high the temperature was. A few times, the worker had to wade through a diked wastewater area, the size of two-city blocks, with toxic waste coming over his boots. He lost his hard hat, lost his gloves, maggots were crawling everywhere, and right next to him was high voltage pump setting in water. He said he thought he’d die that day. He thought he’d die a lot of days but telling didn’t do any good. As any good workers knows: You keep your mouth shut ‘cause a good way to lose your job or lose your bonus is to report a worker injury or a safety violation.
So what about these workers and all these lies that companies tell?
When the news first came out about the BP spill we, the public, were told, that it was a 1,000 barrel a day leak. It took almost 3 months before the truth came out that it was more 50,000-65,000 barrel a day.
That wasn’t my first dance at that rodeo. I’ve had a Texas employee — a wastewater investigator – pass me information because he couldn’t do anything with test results showing extremely high levels of priority pollutants like vinyl chloride and ethylene dichloride in the water. He said every time he tried to pass it up further in enforcement in the state government or even federal EPA, something blocked it. It just so happened that his boss, the state director, had a job application at the Formosa. He sure didn’t want to think what that was all about. Made him sick just thinking about it.
Just like what was happening around the BP fiasco.
Made me sick, too. Made me want to get on a boat and go out on the bay and forget all of it. Last time I was on the bay, however, a seismograph crew breezed in. You might ask what a seismograph team was doing in the bay? They were looking for oil and gas deposits. Yep, there are approximately 4,000 oil and gas rigs out in the gulf but there are a sizable number in the bays, too, and to find these oil and gas deposits, a seismologist team sometimes uses dynamite. The dynamite blasts produce sound waves that pin point deposits. Generally, dynamite charges aren’t allowed near the reefs and they’re not supposed to be so powerful that they blow up fish. That’s the law anyhow, but who’s listening. I was trot lining for black drum and I had a string of lines near an oyster reef that black drum love to hang around. I picked up my line and there, hanging off the hooks, was a very long line of dynamite charges. Things really got messy when the dynamite blasts started rocking the fishermen’s boats and blowing fish out of the water. To stop the obvious show of dead fish, the company brought in a three airboats. Now an airboat can generate the equivalent decibels of a jet plane so imagine three giant airplanes ripping and running up and down the bay to scare the fish out of the bay. Well, they accomplished their goal. All the fish ran out of the bay and there went our fish for the entire season. It was nothing but a bleep on an oil company’s corporate work sheet, but for our family-based inshore fishermen, it was devastating.
That’s not all. Just listen. The oil industry dumps over a billion pounds of mercury-contaminated drilling mud wastes into the Gulf each year. Drilling muds are used to cool and lubricate drill bits as they bore into the well while plumbing for oil and natural gas. The mercury is present in an element called barite, the main ingredient in the muds. In 1996, the EPA limited the amount of mercury that could be present in the drilling muds to l part per million, which could still allow l,000 pounds of mercury to be dumped from the Gulf platforms each year. For 50 years, prior to the EPA rule, there were no limits on mercury in barite. A report published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers suggested that, in the past, barite with mercury up to 30 parts per million could have been used. Using information supplied by the oil industry and the EPA, hundreds of thousands of pounds of mercury have been dumped in the Gulf — via drilling muds — since the 1960s.
So it shouldn’t be surprising at all that the mercury contamination at some oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico appear to be so severe that the rigs could qualify for the National Priorities List Placement and lead to a federal „Superfund” clean-up effort like that of Love Canal in New York. Also, the mercury concentrations in many fish and shellfish sampled around at least one of the rigs were high enough to qualify the area as a contaminated fishery and frequent use of the rigs by commercial and recreational fishermen meant that the contamination around the rigs represented a ‘human food chain threat’.
Federal officials have said there’s little chance that any agency would attempt to put any of the 4,000-odd Gulf rigs on the Superfund priorities list, regardless of the level of contamination and regardless of the health risk, because the contamination occurred as a result of on-going, federally permitted releases of pollutants. And the same goes for when these very same oil companies, who for whatever reason, decide to ship their contaminated drilling mud into cargos that in turn, pump them into tanker trucks, that in turn dump the mud wastes into marshes along small fishing villages on the Gulf Coast. I’ve seen these tankers dump 200 loads into a marsh outside of Seadrift and another load dumped a half-mile from my trailer. My frequent calls to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) were answered with “it´s harmless”. I guess I should tell that to my son who is autistic.
The bottom line is that the Gulf dies a little every day from the tens of thousands of chemical plants, oil refineries and oil and gas rigs that pockmark the gulf coast. It’s a death of a ten thousand cuts and all of these offenses, small and large, are self reported – or, perhaps, not at all. We, the public, really have no way of knowing. The company or the agency certainly isn’t going to tell us. They’ve proved that time and time again. The truth of the matter only becomes clear when something monstrous like the BP oil spill comes along and wakes us up to the nightmare.
I was so fed up with BP and lies that were swirling out in the gulf and how nothing was being done that I decided to go to Washington DC. I’m just a down-and-out shrimper with little money so a friend loaned me the money for the plane ticket to Washington DC. That first day in Washington DC, I went to Congress and wandered around those senate hearing rooms trying to make some sense, to get some truth of what was happening to our fishing and community and the gulf that gave life to everything we did.
Very shortly, I saw that nothing was getting done. There was a lot of talk, lots of testimony, but nothing was happening. Matter of fact, the oil lobbying groups were working something fierce – sufficiently so that Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (which had experienced the EXXON VALDEZ spill in l989) had blocked the vote to lift the liability cap on BP’s damage in the gulf. BP was making 90 million dollars a day and the liability cap was 75 million dollars. Not for a day, not for a year. For the entire catastrophe. It took me one day to decide that I wasn’t going to walk away and let that stand. Not without some kind of protest. So the next morning, I hide a half-gallon of syrup in a jar and went into the senate hearing. Only a few members of the public are allowed into these hearings so I had to stand in line for three hours to get into this hearing. Then I waited until Senator Lisa Murkowski started talking and when she did, I stood up and shouted that we were tired of being dumped on in the gulf and then I pulled my jar of oil out of my purse and poured it all over me. For that fake oil being poured on myself I was arrested and charged with unlawful conduct. The charge had the possibility of 280 days in jail.
After I got out of jail, I went back to Congress. I heard that Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, was going to testify in a Senate Hearing. This time I waited in line for twelve hours. I stood outside the senate building from 10pm that night until 7 am the next morning. I was the second person into the hearing and this time I smuggled a tube of black paint in my back pocket. I waited for Tony Hayward. It was a long wait. Nearly an hour. When Tony Hayward was lead into the senate hearing, a very large crowd of people surrounded him. But I could see him. Then when Tony started to talk, I poured the paint all over my hands and my face, and I stood up and shouted that Tony needed to be arrested. This man needs to be arrested. It took some doing but I was wrestled to the floor by two cops and one undercover cop. I was arrested, handcuffed, and sent to jail where I spent all night and until the next morning. That arrest got me two charges: unlawful conduct and resisting arrest. Those three charges could land me more than 800 days in jail.
I find it very ironic that I am a peaceful shrimper, out of business by the corrupt practices of companies such as Formosa Plastics, Dow Chemical, and BP. Yet these Corporate CEOs who make millions upon millions of dollars are never apprehended or charged with crimes even though it is the worst environmental disaster that America has ever had. And the evidence is so plan. Still these men go free and I’m the one charged with three offenses and could spend over two years in jail for protesting. I spill a half-gallon of syrup on myself and I could get two years in jail. BP spills 5 million barrels of oil and gets charged with nothing. Tony Hayward was sent back to London with a bonus of millions of dollars. I am banned from Washington DC. Where is the justice? Where is the justice? There is some here tonight and for that I am very very grateful.
Let me add that I am volunteering to present this year’s Black Planet Award to Tony Hayward. I think it is only appropriate.