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Toxic Terror

by Ruth Rosen
How one community fought for the human right to breathe clean air.

The Injuries They Endured

The incident that stoked this community’s sense of outrage took place in 1973, when sixteen-year-old Leroy Jones was cutting the grass at the home of Helen Washington, an elderly woman who was indoors taking a nap. Just as the plant released a plume of gas, a spark from the lawnmower ignited the vapor and flames from the explosion engulfed both the boy and the woman. Both died from their burns.

Later, Shell said it had no record of the event that had so inflamed the community’s anger. Residents of Diamond, however, remember that Shell bought the old woman’s lot for a pittance and sent the boy’s mother $500. No apology was ever offered.

In 1988, another incident traumatized the community. An explosion at the plant killed seven Shell workers, blew out the windows and doors of homes in Diamond, and spewed 159 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, requiring the evacuation of 4,500 people. According to Lerner,

Shell eventually paid out $172 million in damages to some 17,000 claimants for the 1988 explosion, but many blacks felt that white Norco residents had received money for damages they had not really suffered.

Between 1993 and 1997, residents of Diamond tried to make Shell pay for relocation of the entire community by filing a class action suit. At the last moment, their attorney asked for a monetary award, rather than funds for relocation. By changing the request to a monetary award, the attorney received a higher percentage of the final settlement.

In 1998, yet another event mobilized the community to confront the Shell Chemical Company. In early morning, overpressure caused the iron roof to blow off a massive storage tank at the Shell Chemical plant. The roof flew over the Washington Street fenceline and landed on the site of a former high school. Had children been playing there, they would have been killed or seriously injured.

This is when residents became firmer in their resolve that it was just too dangerous to live next to the plant. But their property values were already severely depressed because of their proximity to a refinery and a chemical plant. So members of the community created a group called Concerned Citizens of Norco. They asked Shell to buy their homes and relocate them so that their families could breathe clean air and avoid dangerous releases and explosions.

As is often the case, middle-aged churchgoing matriarchs led the battle. Faith shaped the community’s belief that it would prevail. The Greater Good Hope Baptist Church in Norco yoked together a community that kept fighting. These women were determined not to back down, even after they lost battle after battle with Shell.

Marjorie Richard, who would eventually be awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award for her relentless determination throughout this struggle, led the way. Her home was directly across the fenceline from the plant, and many family members had suffered severe illnesses and early deaths from respiratory problems.

Michael Lerner, president of Commonweal—a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California—and brother of the author, visited Diamond during the last years of its struggle. Sitting in Richard’s living room, he “could hear the loudspeaker for the chemical plant [as it] blared terse orders that echoed right into Marjorie’s living room. The fumes from the plant made me thoroughly lightheaded and queasy within two hours. A small black boy, curious about us, was riding his bicycle back and forth in front of a chainlink fence that separated the plant from Marjorie’s front yard.”

Once she began fighting, Richard never stopped, telling all who would listen that Diamond residents suffered from toxic releases that made their eyes and sinuses sting, worsened asthma, and often brought on coughing and headaches. Even the traditional tomatoes that residents had grown as farmers wouldn’t survive in the contaminated soil. As one woman told the author, “The stems die and then the tomatoes dry up like prunes. And you are afraid to eat it.”

Next Section: The Community Organizes

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