by Dennis Bernstein
On June 17, after watching BP’s oil blowout pollute the Gulf of Mexico for nearly two months, environmental campaigner and fourth-generation Texas shrimp boat captain, Diane Wilson, had had more than enough.
So Wilson seized the only opportunity she may ever have to confront BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, eye to eye, about his “criminal activities” as top dog at the oil giant.
That day, Hayward happened to be giving testimony before the Senate Energy Committee hearings. Wilson, who works with CodePink now, had been on the road and was heading home to Seadrift, Texas, when she heard Hayward would be testifying at the Capitol.
“I was coming back to Texas and I found out the CEO of BP was going to be in D.C,” said Wilson, in a telephone interview. “I felt compelled to come. I had to see Hayward. I had to. And I did.”
But Wilson was not merely planning to be a passive observer, sitting in awe in one of the great deliberative bodies of U.S. democracy.
“I got in and I snuck in some black paint,” she said, “and I sat there and waited ‘til he started testifying and then I smeared that paint all over myself, poured it on my hands, and I stood up and told him he should be jailed. He should be jailed, I told him.”
“BP is a criminal company that has ignored safety regulations at the health of our oceans and even its own workers,” Wilson called out to Hayward and the members of the committee,” before she was pounced on by security and hustled out of the hearing room.
“Tony Hayward and BP need to be held accountable for their criminal activities as well as paying every last cent they may have to the families in the Gulf affected by their willful, criminal neglect,” she told me, after she was arraigned in federal court on charges stemming from several acts of civil disobedience.
“Our message to Obama, and Congress: BP must pay to clean up this mess and our government must move to end offshore drilling and move us into a new century of clean energy.”
Now the woman who has been fighting corporate polluters from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Bhopal, India, is facing two years in federal prison and will go before a jury on Aug. 20, which she notes will be “the fourth month anniversary of the oil spill.
“And that’s when I’ll go to trial for, can you believe, doing unlawful conduct?“
In the Heart of Seadrift
Wilson has been facing off with corporate polluters for many years around the world. Then, in 2006, she learned that she lived in the most polluted county in the United States.
She initiated a campaign against corporations that were covering up spills and dumping lethal toxins on the Texas Gulf Coast. Wilson wrote a book about her experiences, entitled An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas.
“You know, Dennis, I have been fighting, ever since I found out my county was the number one county in the nation for toxic disposal,” said Wilson. “We had half the waste generated in the state of Texas was right there in my home town. And we had the largest dolphin die-offs anywhere …
“We have the largest mercury superfund so I am used to fighting chemical plants, refineries, oil people.”
But even Wilson, a fierce fighter for the environment who is usually upbeat and a determined, seemed a bit daunted by the magnitude of the BP oil blowout a mile under the Gulf and the lack of a clear, effective response.
“I have been trying for twenty years to talk to these politicians,” she said, “these agencies, the criminal prosecutors, the federal, the state … and nobody paid any attention. …
“You know, I got to thinking, I must be crazy, it must not matter. And then now with this nightmare going on that for the first time people are looking at it. And they are saying, you know, is this what they do, is this what agencies do, is this what companies do?
“They lie about the releases, they don’t want to give you the information, you know, they don’t tell you about worse case scenarios; and you come to find out, this is what has been going on and … so I was not surprised. I just hated that it could, you know, it really is catastrophic in the Gulf.”
Though the oil first befouled the shorelines of Louisiana and Alabama, the brown ooze has now rolled up on the Texas coast.
“I know in the beginning they were predicting it wasn’t going to reach Texas,” said Wilson. “As a matter of fact, they were saying Texas was going to be kind of a sea bank for fish and that we would have the entire Gulf of Mexico off Texas protected.”
“Well everyone I talk to,” she said, “even the fisherman from Louisiana, they say it’s all just a matter of time. … We had a Vietnamese fisherman in my home town, and it was right after Hurricane Alex hit Brownsville … with all the high tides and the rain, and everything, he went out in the Gulf and he said – this was mid-Texas Gulf Coast, and he said it was covered in dead fish. It was small fish, big fish, he said it was everywhere.
“He couldn’t figure out what was going on and quite frankly I don’t think anybody knows. There is too much that people just find out bits and pieces.”
Wilson was outraged at how the government agencies dropped the ball and trusted BP to lead the clean-up and rescue effort itself.
“They were not reporting leaks,” said Wilson. They “had no type of response plan. Their clean-up program was totally non-existent. Now it has happened, you know, the unthinkable, I mean the worst-case scenario, that these companies will tell you will never, never, never happen: It happened.”
The frustrated activist-turned-author said people “are just sitting’ and waiting’ for it to happen. It’s kind of like sitting there watching Katrina on the TV set and you just see it get bigger and bigger and bigger, worse one day after the next…and just watching it happen.
“I think a lot of people have no idea what to do. The answer to almost every question, is ‘we don’t know’.”
Wilson’s latest nightmare scenario is that the toxic pollution won’t just kill off some fish, birds and other animals but entire species, turning the Gulf of Mexico into a mass graveyard. She said:
“They never thought it would put at risk the entire species of shrimp or crabs or fish, and when you start messing with that, when you start messing with the sea plankton, and … you’re messing with the food chain.
“You might, I think, for the first time you might see the end of it. And I think it’s like they have cob webs in their heads, and they keep trying to shake them off and not believing it. I have a hard time believing’ it too.”
Wilson’s strong will to stand up to BP CEO Tony Hayward and put her body on the line, including doing jail time, is explained by her love of the Gulf, of the region where, for generations, her family lived and thrived off the riches of the sea.
“I was just outraged,” she said of her confrontation with Hayward. “That was the first I saw the face of the man who represented the destruction of my home out there. You know, my family has been out there for a hundred years in that town. A hundred years, and it’s like seeing it go.
“And he somehow represented to me everything that BP was doing. And so I was directing it to him. I kept calling him Tony. I said, ‘Hey, Tony, you need to go to jail’.”
Dennis Bernstein based this report in part on interviews done for “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared on Consortium News.