Prove your humanity

Wilma Subra is no stranger to stories like the one playing out in Norco, Louisiana. There, community activists won a buyout and relocation settlement from Shell after one of its chemical plants polluted an African-American neighborhood. And as in dozens of other places around the country, Subra was there at the disposal of those most affected. For decades, the chemist and environmental scientist has been permanently on call to people who worry about living near industrial sites. In 1999, she received the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Award for her work helping citizens understand and combat environmental problems in their communities. She also chaired the committee that authored the Environmental Protection Agency’s study on hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. Recently, we got a chance to chat with Subra about her long legacy of fighting for the environmental rights of everyday citizens.


The Allegheny Front: First, let’s go into a bit of detail about the bucket brigades which were used to collect air quality samples in Norco, Louisiana. People were using five-gallon buckets, which is a low-cost way for community activists to monitor air quality. Tell us how that worked.

Wilma Subra: Working with the community in Norco, particularly, there were frequently accidental releases and upsets. So I had the community start filling out what I called odor and symptom logs. When they smelled something and it caused a health impact, they would write it down. And I would go and correlate it with the data that Shell was actually submitting to the regulatory agency in response to upsets and accidents that they were having. And then once a month, I would go and sit down with the community and we would go over what they recorded in odor and symptom logs and I’d say: “And this is what Shell says they released. These are the chemicals, this is how much and these are the health impacts.” So suddenly, the community started having the ability to correlate their health symptoms to the chemicals that they were smelling.

As a result, we took samples using the buckets but also using canisters. And we were able to correlate that chemicals had crossed the “fenceline”—that is, came into the community. And then, while continuing to work with Shell before we were able to get the relocation, Shell actually put up monitoring stations throughout the community. And we worked with them on the locations where they were putting them. As a result of that monitoring, Shell was demonstrating that the chemicals were moving off its industrial facilities into the community. So it was working together, coming up with this same type of data over and over again that demonstrated the need for Shell to get this community relocated.

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AF: But our reporter, Reid Frazier, who visited Norco, said the residents were relocated without Shell ever admitting there were health problems.

WS: Those were the terms of the relocation: They were not going to admit that they were causing health impacts, but they were willing to provide adequate resources to relocate. And that was the best condition we could negotiate.

AF: One thing that’s been recommended in our area since the fracking boom is for residents who use well water to be proactive and get tests done so that they can determine a baseline sample of the contents of their water. Then, if there are problems down the line, they can have some documentation. As related industries like the chemical industry move in, is that something you’d suggest residents here do?

WS: Yes. Before a new industrial development comes into an area, there’s a need for that water sampling—both surface water and groundwater—as a background. There’s also a need for air sampling to establish a background. In a lot of cases where we’ve had water contamination, we didn’t have background data so we know what was there before it started.  Then as [industry] goes online, and then as it continues production, we can continue those data collection points, demonstrating how things have changed.

AF: I want to read you something that Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, said about you. He said, “She worries people on my side of the fence because she’s very well-respected, and therefore, she’s effective. We don’t always see eye to eye. However, I hold her in very high regard.” That’s some statement. What do you make of that?

WS: Well, at least we can sit down at the table and talk about the situation. And I can bring the message from the communities to the table to help the industry and regulatory agencies understand what is really going on out in these communities and the really severe impact that a lot of these industrial facilities and industrial processes are having on the health and quality of life in the communities.

AF: Not everyone has that level of respect. In fact, you were actually shot at while working at your desk at one point. Could you talk about that incident?

WS: Sure. I was working on preparing a presentation for the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice Conference. I was working on quite a few facilities and situations, particularly related to natural gas storage and salt domes, as well as responses to Hurricane Katrina. And someone drove by a number of times, and the final time, they drove by and the passenger shot at my office. I was sitting right in front of the window, working on my computer at the time.

AF: What did you do?

WS: My husband happened to be out in the yard at our home next door, and he called the sheriff’s office and they stopped the car a little ways down the road. The passenger was gone, the gun was gone, and the driver said he didn’t know anything about it. So I brought in a consultant, who said to move everything to the back of the building so you’re not so visible and install bullet-proof glass. But it was just a mechanism of harassment, and if you start backing away and don’t work with the communities on these critical issues, then they’ve won. So I continue to work with the communities.

AF: I read that you said there’s too much to do to go on vacation. But I wonder if there are any milestones that might lead you to rest a little bit.

WS: If the industrial facilities operated appropriately and didn’t have any impact on the communities, then I would not constantly be receiving calls from communities that are being impacted to help them understand what is going on.


Wilma Subra is an environmental scientist and president of the Subra Company, an environmental consulting firm. In 1999, she won a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Award for her work helping citizens understand and combat environmental problems in their communities.