A warrior fights for her Texas town

In the tradition of Erin Brockovich, Diane Wilson sinks her teeth into an environmental challenge and won't let go

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In the tiny town of Seadrift, Texas, one woman - a longtime shrimper most often seen in the white rubber boots of her trade - sensed a change. And it wasn't good.

While perched inside the fish house she managed on the dock next to Lavaca Bay, Diane Wilson read a newspaper article that altered the course of her life: A study released by the Environmental Protection Agency had just declared her county one of the most polluted in the nation.

It wasn't long before the bay where her family had dragged their nets for decades was offering up dead shrimp and dolphin carcasses.

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To a Texas woman with a knack for untangling fishermen's nylon nets and chasing after five young children of her own, signs that something is wrong don't get much more obvious than that.

Enter nearby Formosa Plastics, a massive chemical plant with connections to Taiwan. In the eyes of many locals, the plant was a natural sign of progress in a region heavily dotted with petrochemical plants. It had tossed the county an economic life buoy, employing hundreds of workers and allowing them to enjoy the comforts of a steady paycheck that harvesting the Gulf of Mexico doesn't always afford. Plans to expand were already under way.

But Ms. Wilson felt that evidence of a sickly bay demanded a guarantee from the chemical plant that its disposal of ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride was not harming the surrounding community.

Instead of a straightforward answer, Wilson's request for information triggered a complicated battle involving top executives, environmental activists, shrimpers, and plant workers. It also produced this book, An Unreasonable Woman, narrated in Wilson's own distinctive voice.

Wilson was not the first woman - in the interest of protecting the health of family and loved ones - to pick up the otherwise unlikely mantle of environmental activist.

For example, Donna Frye, a San Diego surfer, began her political life when her surfer friends fell ill from paddling along a tainted shore. (Ms. Frye grabbed national headlines this year with her maverick campaign for city mayor.) Erin Brockovich inspired a major motion picture with her relentless campaign against chemical dumping in Hinkley, Calif.

And in Seadrift, Wilson sank her teeth into Formosa Plastics and refused to let go. The resistance from Formosa to further environmental testing only fueled her fury.

"Ecofeminism" might be one way to describe the passion that drives Wilson to transform herself from a mother and a shrimper into an environmental renegade.

Except that Wilson doesn't follow a creed or even have much of a plan. She is simply responding to a powerful intuition that danger lurks.

"I was beginning to discover the difference between women and other women," she writes, "and it wasn't measured by filling in their weights or their shoe sizes on a piece of paper or knowing what color of house they were washing their dirty dishes in or whether they hung their clothes to dry on a fence line in the backyard or shoved them in a dryer in a back room. A woman's difference was if she listened to herself at all."

New to the game of big business vs. environmental standards Wilson doesn't always know where her frontal attack will carry her. We don't always know, either, which gives readers the sense of being packed into the back of her van like one of her small children and driven wildly through attempted negotiations, protests, hunger strikes, family rifts, changing alliances, and secretive confessions. Occasionally, restful passages describe life by the water's edge.

But for the most part it's an exhausting, breathtaking journey with the highest of stakes. Wilson is fearless and driven, willing to sacrifice family connections, a marriage, her own shrimping boat, and even her life to keep public attention focused on something she feels is dangerously wrong.

Her down-home voice laden with similies ("His face was a quiet as an onion peel") keeps readers from drowning in legalese. But just barely. Her campaign against Formosa is lengthy and the story offers little in the way of a concrete timeline, other than a passing reference to three years' work.

Wilson's penchant for colorful descriptions of the people she encounters - from the uniformed Coast Guard to the Vietnamese shrimpers who join her cause - energizes her tale but occasionally also tips it toward caricature.

Still, her determination to leave no stone in Formosa's backyard unturned is admirable, and she finally succeeds in establishing the use of zero-discharge technology.

This is Wilson's first book, and in writing it she has crafted a real-life adventure story as unpredictable as the ocean she depends on for her living. But it does sound out one unyielding message: Never underestimate the potential of a determined woman.

Kendra Nordin is on the Monitor staff.

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