After the explosion, a group of Diamond residents sued Shell, asking to be relocated. But in 1997, a jury ruled against the Norco group.
Richard soon got involved with an environmental group that sampled air near industrial sites. The group began sampling around Norco. During a chemical leak in late 1998, they detected toxic chemicals the plant had not reported releasing to the state regulatory agency.
Wilma Subra, a chemist and consultant to Richard’s group, estimated the air showed Norco residents were breathing in 100 to 1,000 times more pollutants than people in rural Louisiana.
Environmental groups and the media began paying more attention. The results also caught the interest of the Environmental Protection Agency, which had begun investigating ‘environmental racism,’ the tendency for industrial facilities to locate in minority neighborhoods.
Before long Richard was presenting her results to anyone who would hear them, and eventually to the company itself.
Richard made a presentation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 1999 and to a climate treaty conference in the Netherlands. While there, she confronted a Shell executive who attended the conference, asking if he’d be willing to breathe the air. A few weeks later, a top Shell official knocked on her trailer door to discuss her concerns.
Soon after, the company began to offer buyouts to residents near the plants, with a minimum offer of $80,000. Richard took the buyout offer and moved with her mother to a New Orleans suburb, where she currently lives.
Shell said the company’s decision to offer relocation money wasn’t related to the health concerns, according to a written statement from Kimberly Windon, a Shell spokeswoman.
The company operates its plants “with the goal of causing no harm to the people who are on our sites and the public in the nearby communities,” she wrote. The company does this through “equipment design, technical integrity and operating procedures,” she stated.
Tim Johnson, a public affairs consultant to the Louisiana chemical industry, said
companies have evolved in the way they deal with the community.
“The industry recognized it had to do a better job communicating with and listening to citizens in communities around them,” he said.
Some of the improvement came from the companies, he said, but some came from the government. “A lot of the improvements that have been made have been as a result of regulations,” he said.
Air emissions from Louisiana industries have been cut in half since 1991, according to data from the EPA.
“The people who run those plants, they live here too,” Johnson said. “Their families are here. Their children are here.”
‘Better than it used to be’
The company gave residents who chose to stay in Norco grants to improve their homes. As a result, 39 families in Diamond remained.
Lionel Brown chose to stay in Norco. He works at a Dow chemical plant and said emissions are lower than before. (Photo by Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front)
Among those was Lionel Brown.
“I saw no reason to move,” said Brown, 64. Brown said he was offered $200,000 for four lots adjacent to his home, a few blocks from the chemical plant. He thought that wouldn’t be enough to move into a subdivision nearby. “I love living here.”
He said when he went on a car ride as a kid, he remembered being able to smell when the car was getting close to Norco. Now, emissions are much lower.
Brown works at a Dow Chemical plant across the Mississippi river in Taft, La. Before that, he worked at an oil refinery about 30 miles away.
“It’s better than it used to be,” he said, of the environmental practices at these facilities. “I work in a plant, so I know the changes they’ve made. The EPA made them do it,” he said.
Richard says she looks with pride to her days of organizing against Shell. She thinks that everyone—black and white—has benefitted. The plants are far from perfect, she said, but they’re better than they used to be.
Shell’s chemical and refinery operations release 1 million pounds of toxic emissions yearly in Norco, according to the EPA.
“Are they where they should be? No.” Richard said. “But guess what? They’re not where they were, and that’s a fact.”
Reid R. Frazier is a reporter with The Allegheny Front, a radio program covering the environment in Pennsylvania. Find more stories at alleghenyfront.org. This work was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.