In June 2012, Pennsylvania officials flew to Louisiana to visit two petrochemical plants owned by Shell—a company they were about to give big economic incentives to build a plant back home in Beaver County.
But they didn’t visit Margie Richard, who once lived in Norco, Louisiana but now lives outside New Orleans.
If they had, they would have gotten another story about Shell’s operations here. They would have heard about toxic emissions, industrial accidents and how a very determined school teacher brought one of the largest companies in the world to the negotiating table.
Norco’s history is a window into the chemical industry’s sometimes rocky relationship with its host communities along the Mississippi River. And it may offer clues to how so-called “fenceline” communities near plants could manage their relationships with an industry that is expanding to take advantage of the natural gas boom.
LISTEN: “The Teacher Who Took on Shell—And Won”
Richard—a retired school teacher, fervent Christian and gardener—is key to understanding Norco’s recent history. She helped lead a fight to get Shell to relocate families away from a chemical plant, which residents claimed was making people sick and posed a safety hazard. Ironically, her quest was to get Shell to save the people of Norco by dismantling the town itself.
Richard has a few words of advice for Pennsylvanians gauging what a large petrochemical plant could mean for their community.
“The local people need to come together and go to the table and tell them what they want,” Richard says. “You should have input into what is going on.” In Norco, she says, it took decades for the town to learn that lesson.
A Tight Relationship
Norco’s very name signifies the town’s deep relationship to Shell, its largest employer. In 1916, a Shell affiliate known as the New Orleans Refining Company, or NORCO, built a refinery here. Then, in the 1950s, looking to build a chemical plant near its refinery, Shell bought several blocks of farmland.
Richard’s grandfather owned one of those pieces of land, which he sold for $90. He then moved his family next to the plant, where Richard, now 71, grew up.
Diamond, the African-American neighborhood her family called home, was cut off from the white side of Norco, where many of the Shell workers lived. The plant made methyl ethyl ketone—a solvent used in coatings, adhesives and inks, among other things. Richard remembers growing up smelling the bleachlike odors from the plant.
“You smelled it—Lord have mercy—every day,” she says.
WATCH: A Flyover of Louisiana’s ‘Chemical Corridor’
She also experienced far more graphic impacts on the community. In 1973, when Richard was a young teacher, she witnessed the death of 16-year-old Leroy Jones. Jones was mowing the lawn of an elderly neighbor, Helen Washington, when a spark from the lawnmower ignited gas from a leaking pipeline.
“He was trying to run to the other street, but his clothes were on fire,” she says. He later died of his injuries.
The incident galvanized Richard. She started taking note when her neighbors got sick or died of cancer; or when her children had breathing problems that landed them in the hospital. Her own sister Naomi died at the age of 43.
Her concerns grew stronger after an explosion at Shell’s refinery in 1988. The explosion toppled a 16-story tower and cracked walls and ceilings in houses around Norco. The blast was so severe it set off alarms 25 miles away in New Orleans.
“When that cat[alytic] cracker went off, that fire was so huge,” Richard remembers. “It was walking toward us, and people were just running everywhere.”
After the 1988 explosion, a group of Diamond residents sued Shell, asking to be relocated. But in 1997, a jury ruled against the Norco group.
After that, Richard 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 Norco residents were breathing had 100 to 1,000 times more pollutants than people experienced 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 been giving higher priority to cases of “environmental racism”—the tendency for companies to locate industrial facilities in minority neighborhoods.
Before long, Richard was presenting her results to anyone who would hear them—eventually, even to the company itself. In 1999, Richard made a presentation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and to a climate treaty conference in the Netherlands. While there, she confronted a Shell executive attending the conference, asking if he’d be willing to breathe the air in Norco. 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.”
A ‘Chemical Corridor’
Norco lies in Louisiana’s so-called “Chemical Corridor”—a stretch of the Mississippi River north of New Orleans that boasts more than 100 industrial plants and employs around 27,000 people.
But striking workers and local activists know it by another name: “Cancer Alley.” The name comes from epidemiological studies in the late-1970s that showed cancer clusters along the river near industrial plants. In fact, Louisiana is one of the most-polluted states in the country and has the second-highest cancer rate, according to recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) figures.
The chemical industry feels that “Cancer Alley” is an inaccurate and unfair name. An industry-funded study showed no direct connection between chemical plants and incidences of cancer. Studies by the CDC and Louisiana State University in the 1980s came to similar conclusions.
Norco lies in Louisiana’s so-called “Chemical Corridor”—a stretch of the Mississippi River north of New Orleans that boasts more than 100 industrial plants and employs around 27,000 people. But striking workers and local activists have christened the corridor with another name: “Cancer Alley.”
Tim Johnson, a public affairs consultant to the Louisiana chemical industry, says chemical companies have improved their environmental practices over the last 25 years. In fact, air emissions from Louisiana industries have been cut in half since 1991, according to data from the EPA. And part of the reason why, he says, is because companies want to do the right thing.
“The people who run those plants, they live here too,” Johnson says. “Their families are here. Their children are here.”
But he admits that many of those gains came from government regulations, like those mandated under the Clean Air Act.
“A lot of the improvements that have been made have been as a result of regulations,” he says.
‘Better Than It Used to Be’
For residents who didn’t want to leave Norco, Shell offered grants to improve their homes. As a result, 39 families in Diamond remained. Among those was Lionel Brown.
“I saw no reason to move,” says Brown, 64. Brown says 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, Louisiana. Before that, he worked at an oil refinery about 30 miles away.
“It’s better than it used to be,” he says 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.”
For more than 20 years, Ted Davis, 92, worked at Shell’s Norco chemical plant as an operator in a unit that made hydrogen peroxide. Davis, who lives on the “white side” of Norco, says dealing with fumes from the plant was just part of the bargain.
“That’s how people made their living,” Davis says. “In those days, that was it. You had to go to work there.”
Davis, a World War II veteran, came to Norco after a three-and-a-half year tour in the Pacific. He worked in the refinery, and later, the chemical plant. Norco’s fumes could be “terrible.” But for Davis, they were nothing compared to his experience during the war.
“I just came out of the Army living in New Guinea for three and a half years, so this didn’t bother me at all,” he says. “This was heaven when I came here.”
Margie Richard says she looks back with pride on her days organizing against Shell. She thinks that everyone—black and white—has benefited. The plants are far from perfect, she says, but they’re better than they used to be. Even with reductions over the past few decades, Shell’s chemical and refinery operations still release 1 million pounds of toxic emissions yearly in Norco, according to the EPA.
“Are they where they should be? No.” Richard says. “But guess what? They’re not where they were, and that’s a fact.”
This story is part of our series “The Coming Chemical Boom,” which is funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.