This article and radio report by producer Reid Frazier and writer Jared Goyette for Living on Earth as part of the Across Women's Lives project originally appeared on PRI.org on March 27, 2015, and is republished as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Officials in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, are currently mulling a proposal from Shell Oil to build a new chemical plant in their backyard. But before they make a decision, they might want to listen to some advice from a 71-year-old retired teacher who lives in another small town thousands of miles away.
“You should have input in what is going on,” warns Margie Richard of Norco, Louisiana.
Richard’s words of caution come from experience: She fought her own battle against a Shell chemical plant in her hometown — and won.
Norco is town of around 3,000 residents on the Mississippi River, about 20 miles upriver from New Orleans. It gets its name from the New Orleans Refining Company, which operated an oil refinery there, built by Shell in 1916.
The problems in Norco started in the 1950s, when Shell built a chemical plant in a black neighborhood called Diamond, where Richard is from.
Growing up, she remembers smelling foul, bleach-like odors from the plant. Then, in the summer of 1973, a teenager named LeRoy Jones was mowing the lawn of an elderly woman when he stopped for a moment. A pipeline was leaking not far away. When he restarted the mower, it sparked an explosion.
Helen Washington, the resident of the house, was killed. Jones tried to run away, his clothes on fire. He died a few days later.
Richards saw the aftermath firsthand, and the memory of it stuck with her.
“There on the ground was Miss Helen, who lived in the house, under a sheet,” she remembers. “You could smell her hair. It was just awful.”
That experience was a turning point for Richards, who began to document the health problems of people in the neighborhood. Then tragedy struck closer to home: Her sister died at the age of 43 of a rare inflammatory disease called sarcoidosis. While scientists disagree over what causes the disease, some think that chemical exposure can trigger it. Richards suspects that was the case.
Another explosion rocked the town in 1988, this time at the Shell oil refinery. Seven workers died, and the blast was felt as far away as New Orleans.
Richard went on a mission to force Shell to relocate residents away from both plants. She worked with a local environmentalist group, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, to conduct air quality tests. The device the group uses — a five-gallon bucket — was originally pioneered by Erin Brockovich’s lawyer.
The tests paid off: The group was able to detect chemicals in the air that Shell had failed to report to the state’s environmental agency. The media began to pay attention to the case. As the controversy grew, Richard was even invited to speak before the United Nations in 1999. She came armed with a powerful story — and an air sample from Norco.
“I stood before the United Nations with my bag of polluted air,” she remembers. She confronted a high ranking Shell official and asked him if he wanted to smell the bag. He didn’t. A few weeks later, the company changed its position.
Shell offered to buy out the homes of people who lived near the plant. The minimum offer was $80,000, and more than 300 families took it, including Richard’s. The company said the decision to buy out the homes was part of a long-term strategy to create a greenbelt around the plant, and was not related to health concerns.
Much has changed since the buyouts: Toxic air releases in Louisiana are about half of what they were in the early 1990s. And last year, the Environmental Protection Agency celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Environmental Justice program, which was created to protect minority neighborhoods like the Diamond section in Norco from inordinate amounts of industrial pollution.
According to Tim Johnson, a public affairs consultant to the petrochemical industry in Louisiana, the industry has evolved since the time when Richards was fighting Shell. “The industry recognized that it had to do a better job communicating with and listening to the citizens who lived in communities around them,” he says.
Johnson believes part of the reason for the change was that companies simply wanted to do the right thing. But even though he is an industry backer, he recognizes that the shift wouldn’t have happened to the extent it did without government intervention.
“You have to be honest to say … that a lot of the improvements they’ve made have been as a result of regulations,” he says.
And those regulations would likely never have happened without bottom-up pressure from community activists like Margie Richard. Take note, Beaver County.
This story originally aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood. It was part ofan investigative series on the petrochemical industry from The Allegheny Front, a Pennyslvania public radio program that focuses on local environmental issues.