Diamond—In the Rough after Katrina

For Margie Eugene-Richard, a longtime resident of Norco, Louisiana’s Diamond neighborhood, evacuations are a way of life. Diamond, in the heart of the petrochemical corridor known as Cancer Alley, was boxed in on two sides by the gas flares and roaring vent stacks of Shell Chemical. Chemical spills often emptied the local school where she taught. In 1973, a Shell pipeline exploded, forcing an evacuation and killing a neighbor.

Margie Eugene-Richard is still active in fighting for environmental justice, but she won"t be knocking on doors "because there are no doors."© Goldman

A second major explosion at the Shell plant in 1988 killed seven workers, released 159 million pounds of toxic material and convinced Richard to fight back. She organized her neighbors to demand that Shell give them a safer community. "You have to go out and command justice," she says. In 2000, Shell finally agreed to slash emissions by 30 percent and relocate Richard and her neighbors, buying them a hard-won refuge from a life of fear.

Or so she thought. Richard’s new home seemed safe—until Hurricane Katrina menaced off the coast and sent her scrambling. As the 64-year-old winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize climbed into her car last August and merged into the thick traffic crawling north out of New Orleans, her thoughts raced back to the other times she had fled, and she wept. She remembers repeating to herself, "My God, my God."

A month later, Richard was back home and driving Norco’s storm-ravaged streets, yet her sense of shock was still acute. She passed boarded-up windows, blown-out neon signs, a smashed roof covered in a blue tarp, and came to a stop at the site of an old neighborhood park, near her childhood home, that had long ago been purchased and closed down by Shell. "This was my playground," she said quietly, staring at a giant oak tree that had fallen down. "This means a lot to me."

A search for the larger meaning of the hurricane had pulled Richard to this spot along Shell’s fence line, where greenhouse gasses were wisping off of flares. She acknowledges that such emissions are contributing to global warming, increasing ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, and thus spawning more frequent and severe hurricanes such as Rita and Katrina. The blame for Norco’s fallen trees and smashed windows blows back to the usual suspects, including Shell’s smokestacks.

Even so, Richard considers Shell less of a villain these days than a role model for its dirtier competitors. Backed by a newfound local concern over global warming, she’s campaigning to convince other nearby plants to slash emissions. She also wants them to accept responsibility for the region’s environmental problems by doing more to help communities clean up and rebuild. Of course, mounting any campaign along much of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast will be tough. "I won’t be knocking on doors," she says, "because there are no doors." On past evidence, however, Richard is unlikely to let little obstacles like that stand in her way.