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Toxic Terror

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

Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor

Author:Steve Lerner
Publisher:MIT Press, 2004
Pages:344 pp

If this book is made into a film, it will be promoted as the inspirational story of how a tiny African American community in Louisiana successfully battled Shell Chemical Company and won the right to breathe clean air.

But it will not conclude with the predictable, upbeat Hollywood ending. True, it would include an Erin Brockovich-type heroine who goes up against one of the most powerful corporations in the world. And yes, this deeply religious and tightly knit community eventually gets Shell to pay to relocate families to new homes. But the film would have an ambiguous ending. Although the residents win their battle, the community itself is dispersed and dismantled, friends and families scattered in different directions.

Steve Lerner’s story of Diamond, Louisiana, is one of the most remarkable tales that has ever been told about the environmental justice movement, which began in the early 1980s. Through the voices of the major characters in the battle, he offers a vivid account of how a local struggle for clean air gradually gained international support and became part of the global campaign to redefine environmental health as a human right.

Today, many Americans think of themselves as environmentalists. But, as Lerner points out, they mostly view environmentalism as protecting the habitat of grizzly bears, whales, owls, and other endangered species; reducing air and water pollution; and preserving redwood trees and pristine wilderness areas. Ask some of these folks what “environmental justice” means and they will often reply, “Well, it’s about trading pollution credits” or, more vaguely, “It’s about the right of all people to live in a healthy planet.”

The reason many can’t give a better answer is that the environmental justice movement is almost invisible in this country.

Environmental justice refers to the demand by poor and minority communities in the United States (and elsewhere) to protect their families and neighbors from becoming the toxic waste dumps of cities and corporations. For the most part, African American activists in urban communities and American Indians on reservations have led the movement.

As Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resources Center at Clark Atlanta University writes in the foreword of this book, “All communities are not created equal. If a community happens to be poor, black or located on the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ it receives less protection than affluent white suburbs.”

In short, these communities have emphatically declared, “Not in my backyard,” which leaves cities and corporations with no place to site industrial plants or to dump toxic wastes. The poorest of the poor have challenged us all to change our environmental policies and practices so that no human beings are harmed by industrial or toxic contamination.

Let us set the scene. Diamond is a small subdivision of the larger company town of Norco—which stands for the New Orleans Refinery Corporation. It is wedged between the Shell/Motiva Refinery and a Shell Chemical plant, just north of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. This African American community, whose residents have known their neighbors for generations, traces its roots back to the Trepagnier Plantation, where their ancestors worked as slaves. In 1811, these slaves launched the largest slave rebellion in American history. When the descendants of these slaves lost their agricultural land to Shell, they relocated a short distance to Diamond.

Diamond is not a pretty sight. The view from the homes, writes Lerner,

is of heavy industry at work. There are catalytic cracking towers, stacks topped by flares burning off excess gas, huge oil and gasoline storage tanks, giant processing units where oil and its derivatives are turned into a wide variety of useful chemicals, and a Rube Goldberg maze of oversized pipes. The clanking and crashing of railroad cars coupling and uncoupling can be deafening, and the eerie sight of the superstructures of gargantuan oil tankers soullessly moving up the Mississippi to dock and unload their crude oil completes the industrial landscape.

For decades, many residents in Diamond suffered from severe respiratory problems. In some cases, their homes were only twelve feet from the Shell refinery, now classified as “a fenceline community” by environmental justice activists. They routinely experienced what Robert Bullard has called “Toxic terror, never knowing when a chemical assault would harm, or even kill them.”

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