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Toxic Terror

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

The Community Organizes

However, the white population in Norco, which lived just behind a wooded divide, viewed its quality of life quite differently. Lerner is especially deft—and honest—at describing their point of view. “Talk with some [white] Norco residents,” writes Lerner, “and they will tell you that they love Norco, that the smell from the plants is not so bad, that a lot of people in town live to a ripe old age, that statistically they are in betterthan-average health, and that the explosions at Shell are ancient history. People in Diamond who complain about the pollution are ‘just out for a buck’ some Norco residents claimed.”

Why was their perspective different? Lerner suggests a few answers. Many whites who live in Norco worked for Shell, which didn’t hire residents from Diamond. As a result, they knew how the plant functioned and understood that some releases functioned as a safety valve. They also benefited economically from Shell’s presence and tended to live a greater distance from the plant. In the end, Lerner suggests that whites felt less resentment toward Shell, were more likely to ignore any negative health consequences, and probably escaped suffering diseases associated with extreme poverty.

But white residents were also hesitant—even intimidated—about speaking out against their employer. Dewayne Washington, a resident of Diamond told Lerner,

Why are they [whites] happy living right there? If they are to breathe the [polluted] air, at least they are getting paid. But Shell is not doing anything for me. You go back there [on the white side of Norco] and you see [Shell] uniforms all over . . . Some of them feel obligated [not to bad-mouth the company] because they work there. But they [Shell officials] haven’t hired anybody from my community in the last roughly 20 years.

By themselves, the residents of Diamond could not have forced Shell to pay for their relocation. The best deal Shell offered was to buy only half the homes of Diamond, which would have divided families and the community. But some parents depended on their children to shop and care for them. Many children needed their parents to care for their children. Siblings wouldn’t move and leave part of their family in Diamond. CCN therefore refused the offer.

The engagement of other environmental health activists made all the difference. Michael Lerner of Commonweal, for example, visited Diamond many times over two years. He went with Janet Moses, a pediatrician from Boston, and her husband, Bob Moses, the legendary civil rights leader who had been the leader of SNCC.

Convinced of the justice of the community’s cause, Lerner recruited friends of Commonweal to witness the struggle in Norco and even helped organize a busload of environmental grant makers to see firsthand what was going on in Diamond.

Other groups that provided support and assistance included the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, EarthJustice, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Refinery Reform Project, Greenpeace, the Coming Clean Campaign, the Environmental Health Fund, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

During the last years of their struggle, the national Coming Clean Campaign convened its first annual meeting in New Orleans. The campaign brought together activists and organizations concerned with the chemical, nuclear, and petrochemical plants in Louisiana, often called the “Chemical Corridor” or “Cancer Alley.”

At the end of meeting, these environmental activists visited Norco and walked a picket line in front of Shell headquarters in New Orleans. As a result of this growing attention, wrote Michael Lerner, “Norco came to be identified, locally, nationally, and internationally as a community where a struggle that was every bit as important as the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was being played out. But while the civil rights struggle was about the right to vote and to equal treatment under the law, this environmental justice struggle was about the right to live in a place where you could safely breathe the air, drink the water, and touch the earth.”

Soon, Diamond began attracting even more assistance from attorneys, consultants, foundation supporters, and environmental activists from around the country. Greenpeace offered celebrity “Toxic Tours” of the region. It also publicized the plight of Diamond residents by threatening to bring a Greenpeace ship up the Mississippi River and moor it next to Shell’s facilities in Norco.

Eventually, Richard took the battle to Congress and, with a grant from the Sierra Club, to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1999. There, writes Steve Lerner, “members of the delegation wore buttons that read ‘U.S Environmental Racism Must Stop’ and passed out information packets about their struggle.” They also promoted the “idea that environmental injustices suffered by people of color in the United States were human rights violations.” Richard went to the Netherlands (home of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group) to speak with top Shell officials.

Eventually, Shell agreed to negotiate, if only for the sake of public relations. At the time, Shell was busy promoting its “green goals” and trying to fashion an image of the company as a socially responsible corporation that was sensitive to environment issues and the welfare of communities near its facilities.

Meanwhile, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg was fast approaching, and environmentalists threatened Shell that they would focus international attention on the plight of Diamond residents. Shell decided that damage control was far less costly than such negative publicity. By June 2002, Shell reached a historic agreement to buy up the home of anyone in Diamond who wanted to relocate. Those who chose to stay would receive generous home improvement loans that would be forgiven over five years.

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