Part One: Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Margie Richard, the first African-American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Ms. Richard organized her Norco, Louisiana neighborhood to put pressure on Shell Chemical to respond to community concerns about their plant and oil refinery. After many years, the company agreed to relocate the community and reduce plant emissions.
Part Two: We continue our conversation with Goldman Environmental Prize winner Margie Richard. She tells host Steve Curwood about her campaign demanding Shell Chemical give fair and just relocation for the residents of Norco, Louisiana.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Margie Richard grew up in the Old Diamond neighborhood of Norco, Louisiana. She was the fourth generation of her family to live in Old Diamond – an African-American neighborhood where many residents were descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. Norco was also home to a Shell refinery complex. Shell built their first plant in the town in the 1920’s and over the years expanded by buying up neighboring properties.
The company employed many residents from the white section of Norco, known as Sellars, but few blacks. Margie Richard grew up just 25 feet from the fence line of the Shell facilities. When her family and neighbors started suffering health problems and living in constant fear of industrial accidents, Margie said she could not stand idle. She organized her community to stand up to Shell and demand that residents be relocated.
Margie Richard in front of her new home in Destrehan, Louisiana. (Photo: Jim Iocona)
CURWOOD: Margie Richard has just been honored for her activism, becoming the first African-American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She joins me now to talk about her organizing experiences. Margie, Norco was a company town, of sorts. What kind of neighbor was Shell when you were growing up?
RICHARD: You must understand the scene and the setting at that time. People were still living, in that particular section, and I guess in other parts I know of the United States, we were living under separate but equal laws before we had the abolishment of slavery. We also had – I had generations of ancestors who lived under these laws and they were fully enforced. So you must remember that when I came along as a fourth generation person, activities that went on in the predominantly African-American society was very good. The school, the church – there was a balance with the social, physical, emotional, and the spiritual side.
However, those who were in the predominantly white area had the same thing going on, with only one thing, perhaps, that was very good for them – most of the people in the predominantly white section worked for industry, and the company did build the town. However, I guess we were forgotten. I don’t know. But we did not have the swimming pool, we did not have all of the recreational things that were created by the company, for the blacks in the old Belltown section, or the Old Diamond Plantation area.
CURWOOD: Your father was an activist in his own right, right?
RICHARD: Yes, he was.
CURWOOD: And he wasn’t so wild about the notion that the African-American part of town didn’t have jobs. So, tell me, what happened when he went to town officials to try to get more for the community?
RICHARD: When he went, along with the Oddfellows – they were leaders in the town, they were well respected – my dad had done his homework. He knew the law, he knew his rights according to the Constitution, and he also knew his rights according to the most read book in the land, and that is the Bible. So he went with faith, strength, and he had it all together. So when he presented and asked for these things, it wasn’t a turning away, because he used his intelligence. And he was the one who was determined to get bus transportation for our children for school. And that did happen, there was transportation for blacks in the areas of St. Rose – which are neighboring towns – St. Rose, Montz, and New Sarpy was bused to the school in Norco because a high school was built. It was named after Ms. Bethune, Mary McLeod Bethune.
CURWOOD: So, there came a time – Shell started its refinery work there in the 20’s, but then there came a time that much of the black community was forced to move, I guess because of planned expansion. What happened then?
RICHARD: People began to move because Shell had purchased more land in the area. And that was the area of part of the Old Diamond plantation. Many of the people and residents -- I know my dad and my family did -- we moved not very far because that’s all we could afford. The property was inexpensive, and so therefore. they just bought farther down the road where most of them could afford because they did not get a whole lot of money to relocate. So they moved where the money brought them, and that was in the other section of the Old Diamond plantation.
Shell Chemicals Norco petrochemical plant in Norco, Lousiana, along the Mississippi River. (Photo: Jim Iocona)
CURWOOD: So here you are, living along the Mississippi River in this close-knit community where you have your parents, your grandparents, you’ve got cousins and uncles and aunts, and brothers and sisters. And life is really pretty wonderful, and you have your own career, you start teaching. At what point do you decide that Shell might not be such a wonderful neighbor?
RICHARD: You must understand that the life in most of the black communities – or in that section I know – we did things together as groups. At PTA meetings there was active people -- mother, children, fathers, uncles, aunts. Everything was centered around this. When you went to church, it was groups. When you went to recreational activities, it was groups. So people would talk, and I remember hearing people begin to talk about how they were beginning to cough and feel aches and pains.
And very young I heard them talk about the ills of the plant but I didn’t pay much attention to it then until it hit home. My sister, who became very ill and suffered from tired fatigue syndrome. Even during some of her pregnancies, due to perhaps an explosion at the plant – you must remember that even moving in another section we were still about 17 to 25 feet away from the fence line, so you heard all the operations going on, the noise level. Looking at the steam, we call it, and the smoke and the soot and the odors, I became very aware that something was wrong.
And my sister, later on, had what was called sarcoidosis which was not diagnosed when she first had it. It was diagnosed years later. So, therefore, her lungs deteriorated and it was almost like, something must be done. And also I can remember, standing in the front yard of our new home when I look over at the plant and I’m saying, “God, this is too close.” No longer did I see the beauty of the buttercups, the clovers, fields full of corn, beautiful trees. I saw the operation of a plant. But at the same time my inner spirit began to say something must be done for the generations behind us, as well as for my family.
CURWOOD: A number of incidents occurred that I understand made you want to take action and hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for their activities. Could you describe for me some of these and the effect that they had on you?
RICHARD: Yes, I can. Deep within my heart I knew something had to be done. Deep within my heart I did not want to be like many people, when justice needs to surface and override injustice. I felt that if I would use the skills and think about what my ancestors had done, and, especially, my father who believed in making a difference, I just knew that something had to be done to preserve the health and life of many people.
Because even if people were not sick from the other activities where they say it’s very hard to prove that many diseases are caused by the things we breathe in the air – I knew this wasn’t true because there was living facts right in front of my eyes. I knew that something had to be done.
So my plea went: if the local people don’t hear us, then if I ever had the opportunity to go all the way and deal with the owners of the company, somebody must hear because the cry began to get greater. And even greater after there were so many who lost their lives from asthma, and so many who lost their lives from respiratory diseases. And I said it was too much to bear. The risk was too high.
CURWOOD: I wonder if you could take me for a virtual walk down your street and tell me what happened to the people in the various houses, and why you might think what happened to them was linked to being next to the Shell refinery and chemical plant.
RICHARD: It was linked to them because I found out that there was a pattern. And the pattern was almost everybody on our street -- no matter where you went, no matter how you gather, no matter if you went to the local supermarket -- you would hear such comments as “Child, did you hear the plant roaring last night? I could not sleep.” “Did you smell that odor today? Oh, it smelled like gas.” “Did you smell that odor? It was like garlic mixed with bleach.”
And this was a constant talk. And then people began to get sick. There were respiratory machines in almost every house. And then starting with my house – it was the first house on the street – we had machines, oxygen machines, from my mother to the grandkids, to the death of my sister. Next door, after talking to the two young ladies who lived there – one of them was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. And then went down the street a little further – somebody else was diagnosed with liver cancer. Yet, you go down further, it’s the same thing, asthma.
And it’s like, this is beginning to become such a burden until you could see the oppression and depression on people’s faces. And even myself, I’d gotten to a point where we don’t want to go to sleep. Because of previous accidents we wanted to be ready to go, ready to run, ready to move, and it became a matter of survival. It also became a matter of--do I stay here and perish, and die, or do I try to do something about it so that there can be help and deliverance for people?
Shell Chemicals Norco petrochemical plant viewed from the fenceline that separates it from the Old Diamond neighborhood. Margie Richard grew up in a house 25 yards away from the plant. (Photo: Jim Iocona)
CURWOOD: In 1989, you and your community founded the Concerned Citizens of Norco. What did you hope to accomplish with that?
RICHARD: The accomplishment of that was to be well organized, to identify our problems, to come up with facts and proof -- versus that of myths or you say, I say, or hearsay -- to negotiate with the owners of the plant locally, to negotiate with the public relations people. To identify these problems, to work out a plan for solving these problems versus the old method of a status quo, of having things written on paper and then not following through. So it was concerned so that the people in Norco and the Old Diamond plantation would have a right to be relocated from the operations of the plant so that they can enjoy where they work, live, and play without the ills and the fear.
CURWOOD: Our conversation with Margie Richard will continue in just a minute. We’ll hear about her efforts to get Shell Oil to relocate the residents of the Old Diamond neighborhood. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
If you’ve just tuned in, we’re talking with Margie Richard. She and her fellow residents of the Old Diamond neighborhood in Norco, Louisiana organized to form Concerned Citizens of Norco. The group put pressure on Shell Chemical to hear community concerns about the plant and oil refinery emissions and to pay to relocate their community. Concerned Citizens was largely an African American group.
Now, the white neighborhood of Norco also lived close to the Shell plant and they probably had the same kinds of health and noise concerns as you did, Margie. Why do you suppose not many of the white residents, if any of them, got involved in the organizing?
RICHARD: Well, you see, most of the people were employees of the plant so, therefore, they had no reason to complain because in the beginning it was a company town. But it was a company town that met the needs of the predominantly white – and I’m not a racist, but that was a fact.
CURWOOD: Was the white community as close to the fence line as the black community?
RICHARD: In one section, the last street. But because of our move they had an opportunity to be included in the volunteer purchase program and receive the same amount that many of the people in the African-American area did after the challenges. Before that there was an incident that happened in ’73, and the company began to buy property in the Old Diamond area. But it was not enough for anyone to be relocated or to start all over again. And that’s why the organization stood up for fair and just relocation so that people could have enough to relocate where they wanted to versus the old method of you take what I give you and that’s it.
CURWOOD: So, you had some pretty interesting activist techniques, I understand. You put together bucket brigades, and I gather that’s not to put out a fire. And you set up a web-cam so that the plant was available to anyone in the world who had the Internet to see what was coming off it. Tell me, what was the bucket brigade?
RICHARD: The bucket brigade was an instrument used to capture the air, because we were constantly told that it was us, it wasn’t in the air. So this was a mechanism or a facility or a gadget that was put together and approved by EPA. And the results of this – once you get the air in it, you send it off to the lab and the lab would detect what was in the air. And it was proof. It was no longer just saying you people are making noise. So, therefore, these facts were presented. After presenting these facts to EPA, they were also asked to come down and investigate. Something else happened when they came down.
CURWOOD: What was that?
RICHARD: At the end of Washington Street, where I lived, in 1998, a resin tank overheated. When it overheated, parts of the tank top went into the air and it fell on the school ground where the children were playing basketball. And other parts of it was in the air and dropped about two feet away from my house and we were looking at it. So the people in the Diamond area was aware of what went on because we heard the big boom, but nobody else did, I guess, in the other section. But we saw it. And it’s almost like, at the time – we had cameras, we were on the spot because we were just determined to have facts to present for our struggles to industry. So, when we called the public relation person we discussed these matters. And these are some of the things that helped us to have the facts that we needed in order to be relocated.
CURWOOD: How did Shell react to your concerns then, and how has that changed?
RICHARD: In the very beginning it was very difficult because I think there were those who thought we were just making noise to make noise. And if there’s anything that disturbs me most as an individual in the United States of America, it’s for anyone to stereotype classes of people. And I think I had experience from the 60’s and all that we stereotype too much, especially the African-American race. That we make noise and it’s for the greed of money. Well, it wasn’t, because we were all taught the value of work. If anything it was for our constitutional rights. We had a right to enjoy where we live, work, and play, just like anyone else.
And in the beginning we were not heard; we were turned away. We were treated as if we were not human beings, and that hurts more than anything. But when you look at a hurt, it can become anger. But not a type of anger to destroy, a type of anger that says by faith you walk on. You keep pressing on. And then you get to the table and finally the people who were inside the plant began to hear us. Again, in the very beginning, we had to protest, not just to make noise. But as my dad had said, if you make noise and nothing is done, a change will not come. So you negotiate in order to progress. And after coming to the table, then it was the beginning of upward mobility for us to be relocated.
CURWOOD: You were instrumental, of course, in getting Shell to pay for the relocation of the residents of your neighborhood. Where are people going? And what is going on with the emissions that Shell is making from that plant? There are still some people, obviously, still living there.
RICHARD: Yes, because it was a volunteer purchase program. But you must remember this: when the program was first devised, the people from the community did not have input. And this is why I have to say we communicated, we challenged, and then the change came. We challenged the program and people had input. At this time, we were being heard so the people of the community gave input as to what should be done. To compare our houses with houses outside of the Diamond area, and it was.
Many of the people who left are happy, many of the people who stayed are happy. It’s almost like win-win because this is what happened. Those who were there were promised to never be mistreated again. Also they agreed to cut down on the emissions. That is being monitored and done. There were no ambient monitors in the community; they were only inside the plant. And as a result of being fined for the emission that was over the amount – that was by the state and by the federal government – that is being put back in the community and people asked that this be done. Because many times when violations come up, the money is used for everybody and everything besides the people who’s affected the most in the communities. So, therefore, it’s an ongoing upward mobility thing. And the emissions are being cut down.
CURWOOD: How much of the community moved away in the relocation, and where are you now?
RICHARD: I’m in an area called Destrehan. Many of my relatives are there, and some of them are in a place called Laplace, Louisiana and Reserve. We’re all a half an hour drive or 15 minutes away from each other. And there are many who question and say, well if the air was bad there, it’s bad where you are. Well, there is something other people must understand. If they didn’t live where we lived, and you wake up every morning and you open your door and he first thing you see is the steam. The first thing you hear is the noise from the trucks banging. The next thing you hear is an intercom that overpowers anything you have.
They don’t understand that just being away from the sight is relief. And the flares are not as high anymore, the flaring has been cut down. There is cooperation. And then there’s another side to this. There are also those who say, well, maybe we give too much credit to industry. No, I’ve always said this: we’re in this together, we need each other. So we need to come together to solve these problems because if you keep on oppressing and depressing me, it’s affecting everybody. I mean me collectively, not me individually. So I think together, if we come to the table and put these things up, the only way we can solve these problems and improve is to listen to each other. And that is on the table.
CURWOOD: What’s the lessons that other communities might be able to learn from your experience?
RICHARD: If they have a problem, don’t sit among yourselves and talk about it for generations after generations. Get a plan of action, work on it, and ask for meetings. Go straight to the head and deal with the persons involved to get a plan of action, to be heard, and to be treated like every human being. If you don’t, it will go on in a circle and all it will do is become bigger, bitter, angry. And if the bubble bursts in a totalness of anxiety, no one wins. So, my cry and my message is communicate, challenge, and look for changes.
CURWOOD: Margie Richard is the North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2004. She’s the first African-American recipient of the award and is being honored for her efforts for environmental justice from Shell Chemical in Norco, Louisiana. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.
RICHARD: Thank you, and God bless you.
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