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The Planet

Shell Victory

By Mark Muhich

Margie Richard, a retired high school environmental science teacher from Norco, Louisiana, decided she'd had enough. The nearby Shell Oil refinery, which over the years had sprawled ever closer to her home, was leaking a potpourri of toxic chemicals into the air. Asthma, bronchitis, and a host of other respiratory problems were plaguing the residents of Old Diamond, the mostly black, mostly poor neighborhood in Norco where Richard lives, 40 miles upriver from New Orleans in Louisiana's infamous "Cancer Alley."

refinery and graves
Life and Death in Louisiana: Toxic pollution from industrial facilities is an inescapable part of life - and death - in some parts of Louisiana. Shell's refinery and chemical plants in Norco, Louisiana, release nearly 1.5 million pounds of hazardous chemicals into the air annually.

With the help of EPEC funds and Club representative Maura Wood, a Webcam was purchased and installed under Richard's trailer home, providing live feeds on the Web of the Shell refinery's giant flare spewing petrochemical byproducts into the air only yards from Richard's trailer. An additional grant from the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program allowed the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) to obtain air samples that confirmed the toxic substances in the air.

The upshot? After four decades of determined struggle, more than 100 predominantly African-American property owners in Norco have succeeded in compelling Shell Oil to buy out their homes, some of which are situated as close as 15 feet from the refinery. Led by the Concerned Citizens of Norco (CCN), a grassroots group representing the historically black ante-bellum neighborhood of Old Diamond, Norco residents won a concession from Shell of $120,000 for each home ($50,000 for trailer homes), plus moving and legal expenses.

"We could never have done this alone," said Richard, who currently serves as president of CCN. "We wouldn't have known how to get justice on the local and international level if not for the help of the Sierra Club, EarthJustice, and all the other people who pitched in and contributed to this effort."

"When the 'Flare Cam' was installed, Shell offered to buy out homes on the two streets closest to the refinery," Maura Wood recalled. "But the camcorder feeds and the bucket samples helped pressure them to extend the offer to the whole Old Diamond community."

Wood credited the many others involved with the Norco fight, along with the community itself. "Monique Hardin with EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund in New Orleans worked with the community for years," she said. "Monique and Anne Rolfes with the Bucket Brigade were very instrumental in organizing the Norco community to hold out for a good offer that included everyone."

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade was organized to take air quality samples around the Shell facility in Norco. "The buckets were designed by Communities for a Better Environment, to allow citizens to know what is in the air they're breathing," Wood explained. "A simple pump creates a vacuum inside the bucket, drawing air into a special sampling bag. The sample is then processed by an EPA-approved test lab."

Margie Richard tracked Shell executives to last year's World Conference on Climate and Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, where she confronted Shell officials with a 5-gallon bucket full of Norco air, providing toxic evidence to back up her claims. "We found chemicals in our buckets that weren't even reported on the Toxic Release Inventory," she said. Within weeks, Shell representatives from England appeared at her doorstep, offering to relocate and buy out her long-suffering neighbors.

"The Flare Cam made quite a splash around here," said Bucket Brigade Director Rolfes. "There really is no air quality monitoring in Norco-the closest air toxics monitor is 40 miles away. Even though the Norco refinery processes hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day, air quality monitoring is basically self-reported. The buckets were key in giving the people the right to know what they were breathing."

Shell's refinery and chemical plants in Norco release nearly 1.5 million pounds of hazardous chemicals annually into the air, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. Fugitive emissions (accidental leaks) account for more than one-half of all Shell's toxic releases in Norco, where many residents have lost relatives and friends to respiratory illness and cancer. Over a third of the children in Norco suffer from asthma or bronchitis, and 25 percent of the town's women and children have visited hospital emergency rooms complaining of respiratory problems. Homeowners have endured daily episodic leaks of methyl ethyl ketone, benzene, allyl chloride, and a slew of other toxic chemicals.

Shell has now agreed to install state-of-the-art laser detection systems to reduce fugitive emissions. Shell will also train Old Diamond residents who choose to remain in Norco, helping upgrade their trade skills. (Currently only 3 percent of Old Diamond adults work at the Shell plant.)

Many leading voices of the environmental justice movement, including the National Black Environmental Justice Network, EarthJustice, Greenpeace, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, chemist Wilma Subra, and the Xavier University Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, helped shame Shell into offering its unprecedented relocation deal to Norco citizens.

Appearing at the NAACP's 93rd annual conference in Houston shortly after the Norco settlement, sociologist Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University praised the victory as historic. "Race and class are potent factors in sorting people into their physical environment," Dr. Bullard asserted. "Three out of five African-Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. There is a direct relation between pollution and poverty. But when it comes to breathing, there is no rich or poor air, no black or white air. There is just air."

The Sierra Club hired its first environmental justice organizer in 1992, moving the organization beyond its traditional comfort zone into an expanded commitment to environmental justice. It currently has organizers in Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Washington, D.C., and a roving national director, John McCown, based in Sparta, Georgia. The Sierra Club offers grants to local groups and state chapters through its Environmental Justice Special Projects Discretionary Fund. For more information, e-mail special.projects@sierraclub.org.

Editor's Note: Margie Richard will be featured on a new Lifetime show entitled "Final Justice," hosted by Erin Brocovich. Shooting for the segment began in September. The program is scheduled to air in early 2003 on the Lifetime Network.


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