Texas shrimper, National Fisherman Highliner, and activist, Diane Wilson was celebrated this week for her environmental achievements, including winning the largest citizen lawsuit in the history of the U.S. Clean Water Act against Formosa Plastic Corp. 

Wilson received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco on Monday night. This was the first Goldman prize ceremony to be held in person since 2019 due to the pandemic.

Wilson was the sole prize winner from North America, as each person nominated represents one world region or continent. The group of winners will travel to Washington, D.C. this upcoming Tuesday to be honored once more at the Kennedy Center.

Watch the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony

The executive director of the Goldman prize, Michael Sutton, said that Wilson’s significant achievement in court and her grassroot activism made her a notable recipient of the award. 

Wilson talked in the ceremony video about how “you knew nothing about what Formosa was making, what they were emitting, and then all the dolphins started dying.”

As she watched the ecosystem begin to collapse due to pollutants from Formosa's plant at Point Comfort, Texas, Wilson acted. She began investigating toxic sources of waste in Lavaca Bay, organized meetings and questioned regulatory agencies. 

“I would have workers call me telling me about spills, burying drums, and having ditches running with chemicals out into a field.” Wilson shared in an interview.

“It was scary.”

Wilson began receiving threats after refusing to back down, she was shot at, and then her boat was sabotaged and nearly sunk with her onboard. She persisted because that bay meant something more to her than just water to fish in – it was home.

In 2008, a Formosa whistleblower informed Wilson that the company was manipulating Clean Water Act violations. This was when she learned of the trillions of plastic pellets called nurdles
(the building blocks of all plastic products) that the Formosa plant was manufacturing each day.

With the mass production of these nurdles, the plant was losing the pellets in 10 different storm water outfalls, therefore the plastic they were discharging was everywhere.

Wilson told how the plant had been discharging this waste for 27 years. Nurdles contaminate the ecosystem with toxic chemicals when sea life and birds consume them. 

The activist raised awareness and gained media attention, and finally was able to file a suit against Formosa Point Comfort, Texas, plant back in 2017 and present 2,400 samples of documented nurdle contaminates.

Wilson was able to see some victory for her decades of efforts, and in 2019, a federal judge found Formosa to be a “serial offender” of violations of the law. The company then agreed to pay a $50 million settlement for Clean Water Act violations. Formosa has now also spent more than $450 million to remediate damaged shorelines and reach “zero-discharge of plastics.”

None of the $50 million settlement was awarded to the plaintiffs in the suit, but was paid out over five years to a fund that supported projects to repair the damage of water pollution in Texas’ Calhoun County. 

Wilson’s hopes were to educate others, bring back the plants, and revive the fisheries.

The funded projects in 2019 that Diane and other plaintiffs came up with were:

  • $20 million for creating a cooperative that will revitalize depleted marine ecosystems and develop sustainable fishing, shrimping and oyster harvesting.
  • $10 million for environmental development of Green Lake Park, the second largest natural lake in Texas, into an environmentally sound public park.
  • $2 million to control erosion and restore beaches at Magnolia Beach.
  • $5 million for environmental research of San Antonio and Matagorda Bay systems and river deltas that feed into them.
  • $1 million to support the Nurdle (plastic pellet) Patrols at the University of Texas’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, and to give scholarships to allow persons throughout the Gulf Coast to attend Nurdle Patrol conferences. The brainchild of the reserve’s director Jace Tunnell, the Nurdle Patrols are volunteer groups that collect plastic pellets to document and research plastic pollution of the gulf and its shores.
  • $750,000 to the YMCA for camps for children to study and learn how to be good stewards of the local marine environment.

Wilson shared in an interview with NF back in 2019 that, “years of fighting to protect the natural resources of Lavaca Bay-Cox creek area have finally paid off.”

In 2023 she shares, “the plastic age needs to end.”

As a fourth-generation fisher, Wilson understood the importance of keeping the ocean and land clean so there can continue to be healthy sustainable resources to feed the world. Her advocacy comes from an apparent deeply rooted love for the ocean she fished.

Wilson winning the Goldman Environmental Award will surely inspire others to tackle environmental issues happening in their coastal communities.

Similarly, to 2022 NF Highliner, Mimi Stafford, who is fiercely devoted to protecting and preserving her industry, Wilson also seems to be living by the motto: leave this place better than we found it.

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Carli is a Content Specialist for National Fisherman. She comes from a fourth-generation fishing family off the coast of Maine. Her background consists of growing her own business within the marine community. She resides on one of the islands off the coast of Maine while also supporting the lobster community she grew up in.

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