Margie Richard: Combatant in Cancer Alley

I was thrilled to learn that Margie Richard of Louisiana was a winner of the 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize. This was a richly deserved award. I was warmly welcomed into Richard’s home in Norco, Louisiana in 1998, and had the opportunity to meet her again last year when the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference came to New Orleans. Both times, I found her to be a deeply religious woman, absolutely determined to stand her ground in the historically African-American Old Diamond neighborhood, despite the presence of an enormous Shell Chemical plant just 25 feet away from her property line.

In 1998, I profiled Richard as part of E"s "Don"t Dump on Me!" series about communities with acute environmental justice issues. Here"s some of what I wrote then:

It may not have been living for most of her life next to a gigantic Shell chemical plant that gave Margie Richard religion, but it certainly could have been. The mammoth Shell oil refinery and chemical plant across from her home is a complex so big it resembles a small city. (Indeed, the plant is the city: “Norco” stands for New Orleans Refining Company, the name of the factory before it was bought by Shell in the 1920s.)

Flares burn off into the night, and a pervasive stench, like burning plastic, fills the air. Notations on pipelines indicate they carry ethane, chlorine, ethylene and propylene. Walking down her street, Richard passes the grown-over home foundation of her late sister, who died of sarcoidosis in 1983 after selling her home to Shell. There are many similar foundations on the street, all representing people who died or moved away.

At the end of the street, a playground is all that’s left of an elementary school that’s also among the missing. Fourteen-year-old Artie Wooten is playing basketball with the plant as a dramatic backdrop. “They should clean up this place,” he says. “It hurts my nose.” About 20 feet from where his ball bounces against the backstop is a square depression in the earth, a reminder of the flying object that landed there last February. A large piece of metal handrail, four feet across, was blown off a Shell tank, burying itself deep into the playground. Company representatives came and took it away.

Margie Richard’s grandchildren, Chris and Josh, say there’s not many places for them to play outside. Joseph Johns, 17, was just mowing his lawn one day in 1973, when an explosion at the plant left him with third-degree burns (an elderly resident was killed by the blast). A 1988 explosion at a second Shell facility shook the whole town, says Richard, adding that her own parents, children and grandchildren have been afflicted with emphysema, allergies, asthma and skin rashes. These maladies are common in Diamond, as is cancer.

Richard, a former teacher and drug counselor, did move away for a while, but she came back as a committed activist. “I made a sacrifice to come back here,” she says, “but these are my people, and I believe in the God-given principles about institutions of sin. I wouldn’t be able to endure this without faith. Nobody has the right to get rich at the expense of other people’s health.”

Things have gotten better in this corner of cancer alley since 1998. According to Goldman, “In 2000, thanks largely to Richard’s efforts, Shell agreed to reduce its emissions by 30 percent and improve its emergency evacuation routes. Shell also agreed to pay voluntary relocation costs for residents who lived on the two streets closest to the plant. But Richard and Concerned Citizens of Norco turned up the heat, leading to a meeting at the Royal Dutch/Shell offices in London where they secured a $5 million community development fund and full relocation for all four Old Diamond streets. Since the agreement was brokered in 2002, Shell has bought about 200 of the 225 lots at a minimum price of $80,000 per lot.“In addition to being the first community relocation victory of its kind in the Deep South, Richard’s success in Norco has been an inspiring example for activists nationwide battling environmental racism in their own backyards. People of color are more likely than whites to live near areas polluted by industrial plants; 71 percent of African-Americans live in counties that don"t meet federal air pollution standards. As a consequence, blacks suffer disproportionately from respiratory and other environmental ailments, studies show. Community protest against these conditions has produced a uniquely American brand of activism that is equal parts civil rights and environmentalism. “Richard stands at the forefront of this important social justice movement. “Every time we as black Americans stand up for what is right, they say it’s for greed of money. It’s a fight for longevity,” Richard has said. “If we don’t put a face to it, we can’t make change. Truth and justice for the betterment of life, the environment and government is the stairway to upward mobility.”

Here, here. The Goldman award should help people understand the scope of the injustice in Cancer Alley. There are many Norcos. Many Old Diamonds. And many heroes like Margie Richard. Visit the Goldman site for a complete list of 2004 award recipients.