NORCO, La. -- In June 2012, Pennsylvania officials flew to Louisiana to visit a couple of petrochemical plants owned by Shell, a company they were about to give big economic incentives to build a plant in Beaver County, Pa.
But they didn’t visit Margie Richard, who once lived in Norco, but now lives outside New Orleans.
If they had, they would have gotten another story about Shell’s operations here, a story 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 ‘fenceline’ communities near plants could manage their relationships with an industry that is expanding to take advantage of the natural gas boom.
At the center of Norco’s history stands Margie Richard, a retired school teacher, fervent Christian and gardener. Richard, a native of the town, helped lead a fight to get Shell to relocate families away from the plant, which the residents claimed was making people sick and posed a safety hazard. Richard’s quest, ultimately successful, was to get Shell to save the town by dismantling it.
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. You should have input into what is going on,” she said. In Norco, she said, 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, an affiliate of the company built a refinery—the New Orleans Refining Company, or NORCO. 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 neighborhood where Richard, who is black, lived, 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 remembered growing up smelling the bleach-like odors from the plant.
“You smelled it—Lord have mercy—every day,” she said.
Richard was a young teacher in the town in 1973, when a 16-year-old named Leroy Jones was mowing the lawn of an elderly neighbor, Helen Washington. A spark from the lawnmower ignited gas from a leaking pipeline and Washington died in the blast.
Richard said she saw Jones coming down the street.
“He was trying to run to the other street, but his clothes were on fire,” she said. He later died of his injuries. The explosion galvanized Richard.
She noticed when her neighbors got sick or died of cancer, or when her children had breathing problems that sent them to the hospital. Her sister Naomi died at the age of 43.
Her concerns grew stronger after an explosion at Shell’s refinery in 1988. (The plant is now owned by Motiva, a joint-venture between Shell and Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil company). The explosion toppled a 16-story tower, and cracked walls and ceilings in houses and ceilings around Norco. It set off alarms 25 miles away in New Orleans.
“When that cat (catalytic) cracker went off, that fire was so huge. It was walking toward us,” Richard said. “And people were just runnin’ everywhere.”
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After the explosion, a group of Diamond residents sued Shell, asking to be relocated. But in 1997, a jury ruled against the Norco group.
Richard soon 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 showed Norco residents were breathing in 100 to 1,000 times more pollutants than people 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 begun investigating ‘environmental racism,’ the tendency for industrial facilities to locate in minority neighborhoods.
Before long Richard was presenting her results to anyone who would hear them, and eventually to the company itself.
Richard made a presentation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 1999 and to a climate treaty conference in the Netherlands. While there, she confronted a Shell executive who attended the conference, asking if he’d be willing to breathe the air. 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,” she stated.
Tim Johnson, a public affairs consultant to the Louisiana chemical industry, said
companies have evolved in the way they deal with the community.
“The industry recognized it had to do a better job communicating with and listening to citizens in communities around them,” he said.
Some of the improvement came from the companies, he said, but some came from the government. “A lot of the improvements that have been made have been as a result of regulations,” he said.
Air emissions from Louisiana industries have been cut in half since 1991, according to data from the EPA.
“The people who run those plants, they live here too,” Johnson said. “Their families are here. Their children are here.”
‘Better than it used to be’
The company gave residents who chose to stay in Norco grants to improve their homes. As a result, 39 families in Diamond remained.
Among those was Lionel Brown.
“I saw no reason to move,” said Brown, 64. Brown said 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, La. Before that, he worked at an oil refinery about 30 miles away.
“It’s better than it used to be,” he said, 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,” he said.
Richard says she looks with pride to her days of organizing against Shell. She thinks that everyone—black and white—has benefitted. The plants are far from perfect, she said, but they’re better than they used to be.
Shell’s chemical and refinery operations release 1 million pounds of toxic emissions yearly in Norco, according to the EPA.
“Are they where they should be? No.” Richard said. “But guess what? They’re not where they were, and that’s a fact.”
Reid R. Frazier is a reporter with The Allegheny Front, a radio program covering the environment in Pennsylvania. Find more stories at alleghenyfront.org. This work was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.