EiJ Photo Essay: Calhoun County, Texas, USA

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EiJ Case Study Keywords

citizens’ suit | data divergence | economic cooperatives | Formosa Plastics | infrastructural injustice | mercury | nurdles | oystering | petrochemical industry | plastic pellets | shrimping | transitional justice   | Superfund | Trumped | Union Carbide

Cotton, Shrimping & Petrochemical

1. What is the setting of this case? What are its assets? 

Calhoun County is a rural yet highly industrialized county on the Gulf Coast of Texas, 150 miles south of Houston, 240 miles north of the Mexican border. It is the ancestral lands of the Karankawa, Esto’k Gna (Carrizo/Comecrudo), and Coahuiltecan (Native Land 2021)....  

Today, somewhat paradoxically, Calhoun County largely leans far right politically, with over 66% voting for President Donald Trump in 2016 (DataUSA  2021). Conservative churches are leading voices in local politics. 

Diane Wilson is also an important voice: a mother of five and fourth-generation shrimp boat captain that became an environmental activist following the publication of toxic release inventory data in 1989 (Fortun 2009).

Commercial fishing once sustained many residents of Calhoun County.  Today, few people make a living fishing though there are high hopes of revival. In 2017, environmental activists for Calhoun County -- organized as the Calhoun County Waterkeppers-- settled a landmark citizens lawsuit against Formosa, winning $50 million USD to support environmental monitoring, research  and education programs, and to rebuild the local fishing community.  Plaintiffs brought literally buckets of evidence forward, supporting allegations of rampant and illegal discharge of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay and nearby waterways from a Formosa plant in Point Comfort, directly on Lavaca Bay.  The judge described Formosa as a “serial offender.” 

The case was led by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which describes the outcome as the largest settlement of a Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals. The success is already shadowed,  however, by plans to build a new port facility to support the export of shale gas from Calhoun County. The port project works against decarbonization and will exacerbate climate change. It also will involve deep dredging of Lavaca Bay,  roiling mercury-laced sediment in one of the nation’s largest and most toxic Superfund sites, created by the operations of a  now-closed Alcoa aluminum refinery, which released estimated 1.2 million pounds of mercury into the Bay in the late 1960s and 1970s.   This is a combo disaster at its worst, when earlier successes in environmental protection are undermined by failed environmental protection today.


Collection: Calhoun County Backstories

Collection: Launching Environmental Activism

Calhoun County: RMP Facilities

Calhoun County today is hazardous in multiple, intersecting ways. There are 12 facilities designated by the US EPA as RMP facilities because of the potential for off-site releases of toxic chemicals (Right-To-Know Network 2018). 

Calhoun County is also climate vulnerable, atmospheric and economic.  As the Gulf of Mexico heats, hurricanes are growing more intense,   Calhoun County is also poised to become a new export hub from 

Amidst this tangle of hazards, Formosa still dominates the landscape. 


Collection: Union Carbide
Collection: Fighting Alcoa
Collection: Formosa Plastics
Collection: Risk Management Plans
Collection: Cumulative  Hazards


Film: Seadrift

Opportunity Index 2021: Calhoun County, Texas

3. What intersecting factors -- social, cultural, political, technological, ecological -- contribute to environmental health vulnerability and injustice in this setting? 

Many factors work against environmental protection and justice in Calhoun County. Formal education levels are low, as is access to health care. Calhoun County has a notably low score for “youth opportunity”.


Opportunity Index: Calhoun County, TX

Calhoun County: Dale Jurasek

4. Who are stakeholders, what are their characteristics, and what are their perceptions of the problems?

  • Petrochemical facilities, companies and trade groups
  • Army Corp of Engineers; Calhoun County Port Authority; Calhoun County Government; Seadrift [city]; Port Lavaca [city]. 
  • Petrochemical workers; Shrimpers; 
  • Diane Wilson and Waterkeepers; Matagorda Bay Foundation; sports fishermen
  • Churches



Collection: Formosa Plastics Texas Worker Interviews

Collection: Fishing Futures

Clean Water Suit Samples, 2019

5. What have different stakeholder groups done (or not done) in response to the problems in this case?  

Diane is a fourth generation shrimper and mother of five In 1989, Diane was helping manage one of Calhoun County’s fish houses, where shrimpers brought in their catch.  One of the shrimpers - with  cancer boils covering his arms -- brought her a newspaper with news that Calhoun county had the worst toal letal topic missions in the United States --  in tonnage of mercury leaked into Diane's bays. The information was newly available through the US Toxic Release Inventory, a database mandated by the Community Right to Know Act, passed in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1984 chemical plant disaster in Bhopal India, which killed thousands immediately and exported nearly half a million people to toxic gas. News that her community was threatened maddening and motivated Diane, launching her incredible career as an  environmental activist.   Diane has won many awards, books have been written about her, and she has written three fabulous books herself. I recommend  them all, and urge you to think about what provokes, supports and sustains the emergence of new environmental activists, particularly  those who think of themselves as “nobody in particular,” the title of a hilarious, detail rich graphic story about Dain’s early  activism. You  can read the book in our archive, noting how our capacity to archive -- in databases like the Toxic Release Inventory, or social science archives like ours -- provide critical support for environmental protection.  Environmental politics, in so many ways, is also data politics.


Collection: Launching Environmental Activism 

Collection: The Waterkeepers Win

Cover: Nobody in Particular

6. How have environmental problems in this setting been reported on by media, environmental groups, companies and government agencies? 


Bibliography: Calhoun County Zotero

Collection: Calhoun County Archive

Collection: Launching Environmental Activism

Artifact: Nobody in Particular (Graphic Novel)

Collection: Waterkeepers Win


Dirty Money: Point Comfort + Seadrift

Image: Remediating Plastic Pellet Pollution

7. What local actions would reduce environmental vulnerability and injustice in this setting?


Collection: Waterkeepers Win

Collection: Cleaning up over the Long Haul

Image: Stop the Oil Exports

8. What extra-local actions (at state, national or international levels) would reduce environmental vulnerability and injustice in this setting and similar settings? 


Project: Formosa Plastics Global Archive

Collection: Pipeline & Port Proposal

Timeline: Formosa Plastics Select Incidents and Known Harms (by Brenda Vuong)

Timeline: Formosa Plastics’ Development and Investment (by Ying-Feng Tai)

Image: Fishing Cooperative, Calhoun County, Texas

9. What kinds of data and research would be useful in efforts to characterize and address environmental threats in this setting and similar settings?  

Expected air pollution from the port project.

What kind of community archive would scaffold fishing community?


Collection: Fishing Futures

Calhoun County: Superfund and Climate Change

10. What intersecting injustices -- data, economic, epistemic, gender, health, infrastructure,  intergenerational, media, procedural, racial, reproductive -- contribute to environmental injustice in this setting?

  • Infrastructural injustice: Ruining work accomplished by Superfund since 1994. 
  • Data Injustice 
  • Economic injustice


Collection: Fishing Futures



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Created date

November 22, 2021

Cite as

Tim Schütz, Kim Fortun, Brenda Vuong, Dana Austin and Vanessa Diehl. 22 November 2021, "EiJ Photo Essay: Calhoun County, Texas, USA", Project: Formosa Plastics Global Archive, Disaster STS Network, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 10 December 2021, accessed 27 June 2022. https://disaster-sts-network.org/content/eij-photo-essay-calhoun-county-texas-usa