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The Toxic Terror of Diamond, Louisiana

In one of the most remarkable tales ever told about the environmental justice movement, an African American community fought for, and won, the human right to breathe clean air.
 
 
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If Steve Lerner's book Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor (MIT Press) 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.

Lerner's story of Diamond, La., 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 Resource 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 12 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."

The Injuries They Endured

The incident that stoked this community's sense of outrage took place in 1973, when 16-year-old Leroy Jones was cutting the grass at the home of Helen Washington, an elderly woman who was indoors taking a nap. Just as the plant released a plume of gas, a spark from the lawnmower ignited the vapor and flames from the explosion engulfed both the boy and the woman. Both died from their burns.

Later, Shell said it had no record of the event that had so inflamed the community's anger. Residents of Diamond, however, remember that Shell bought the old woman's lot for a pittance and sent the boy's mother $500. No apology was ever offered.

In 1988, another incident traumatized the community. An explosion at the plant killed seven Shell workers, blew out the windows and doors of homes in Diamond, and spewed 159 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, requiring the evacuation of 4,500 people. According to Lerner,

Shell eventually paid out $172 million in damages to some 17,000 claimants for the 1988 explosion, but many blacks felt that white Norco residents had received money for damages they had not really suffered.

Between 1993 and 1997, residents of Diamond tried to make Shell pay for relocation of the entire community by filing a class action suit. At the last moment, their attorney asked for a monetary award, rather than funds for relocation. By changing the request to a monetary award, the attorney received a higher percentage of the final settlement.

In 1998, yet another event mobilized the community to confront the Shell Chemical Company. In early morning, overpressure caused the iron roof to blow off a massive storage tank at the Shell Chemical plant. The roof flew over the Washington Street fenceline and landed on the site of a former high school. Had children been playing there, they would have been killed or seriously injured.

This is when residents became firmer in their resolve that it was just too dangerous to live next to the plant. But their property values were already severely depressed because of their proximity to a refinery and a chemical plant. So members of the community created a group called Concerned Citizens of Norco. They asked Shell to buy their homes and relocate them so that their families could breathe clean air and avoid dangerous releases and explosions.

As is often the case, middle-aged churchgoing matriarchs led the battle. Faith shaped the community's belief that it would prevail. The Greater Good Hope Baptist Church in Norco yoked together a community that kept fighting. These women were determined not to back down, even after they lost battle after battle with Shell.

Marjorie Richard, who would eventually be awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award for her relentless determination throughout this struggle, led the way. Her home was directly across the fenceline from the plant, and many family members had suffered severe illnesses and early deaths from respiratory problems.

Michael Lerner, president of Commonweal – a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, Calif. – and brother of the author, visited Diamond during the last years of its struggle. Sitting in Richard's living room, he "could hear the loudspeaker for the chemical plant [as it] blared terse orders that echoed right into Marjorie's living room. The fumes from the plant made me thoroughly lightheaded and queasy within two hours. A small black boy, curious about us, was riding his bicycle back and forth in front of a chainlink fence that separated the plant from Marjorie's front yard."

Once she began fighting, Richard never stopped, telling all who would listen that Diamond residents suffered from toxic releases that made their eyes and sinuses sting, worsened asthma, and often brought on coughing and headaches. Even the traditional tomatoes that residents had grown as farmers wouldn't survive in the contaminated soil. As one woman told the author, "The stems die and then the tomatoes dry up like prunes. And you are afraid to eat it."

The Community Organizes

However, the white population in Norco, which lived just behind a wooded divide, viewed its quality of life quite differently. Lerner is especially deft – and honest – at describing their point of view. "Talk with some [white] Norco residents," writes Lerner, "and they will tell you that they love Norco, that the smell from the plants is not so bad, that a lot of people in town live to a ripe old age, that statistically they are in better-than-average health, and that the explosions at Shell are ancient history. People in Diamond who complain about the pollution are 'just out for a buck' some Norco residents claimed."

Why was their perspective different? Lerner suggests a few answers. Many whites who live in Norco worked for Shell, which didn't hire residents from Diamond. As a result, they knew how the plant functioned and understood that some releases functioned as a safety valve. They also benefited economically from Shell's presence and tended to live a greater distance from the plant. In the end, Lerner suggests that whites felt less resentment toward Shell, were more likely to ignore any negative health consequences, and probably escaped suffering diseases associated with extreme poverty.

But white residents were also hesitant – even intimidated – about speaking out against their employer. Dewayne Washington, a resident of Diamond told Lerner:

Why are they [whites] happy living right there? If they are to breathe the [polluted] air, at least they are getting paid. But Shell is not doing anything for me. You go back there [on the white side of Norco] and you see [Shell] uniforms all over ... Some of them feel obligated [not to bad-mouth the company] because they work there. But they [Shell officials] haven't hired anybody from my community in the last roughly 20 years.

By themselves, the residents of Diamond could not have forced Shell to pay for their relocation. The best deal Shell offered was to buy only half the homes of Diamond, which would have divided families and the community. But some parents depended on their children to shop and care for them. Many children needed their parents to care for their children. Siblings wouldn't move and leave part of their family in Diamond. CCN therefore refused the offer.

The engagement of other environmental health activists made all the difference. Michael Lerner of Commonweal, for example, visited Diamond many times over two years. He went with Janet Moses, a pediatrician from Boston, and her husband, Bob Moses, the legendary civil rights leader who had been the leader of SNCC.

Convinced of the justice of the community's cause, Lerner recruited friends of Commonweal to witness the struggle in Norco and even helped organize a busload of environmental grantmakers to see firsthand what was going on in Diamond.

Other groups that provided support and assistance included the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, EarthJustice, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Refinery Reform Project, Greenpeace, the Coming Clean Campaign, the Environmental Health Fund and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

During the last years of their struggle, the national Coming Clean Campaign convened its first annual meeting in New Orleans. The campaign brought together activists and organizations concerned with the chemical, nuclear, and petrochemical plants in Louisiana, often called the "Chemical Corridor" or "Cancer Alley."

At the end of meeting, these environmental activists visited Norco and walked a picket line in front of Shell headquarters in New Orleans. As a result of this growing attention, wrote Michael Lerner, "Norco came to be identified, locally, nationally, and internationally as a community where a struggle that was every bit as important as the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was being played out. But while the civil rights struggle was about the right to vote and to equal treatment under the law, this environmental justice struggle was about the right to live in a place where you could safely breathe the air, drink the water, and touch the earth."

Soon, Diamond began attracting even more assistance from attorneys, consultants, foundation supporters, and environmental activists from around the country. Greenpeace offered celebrity "Toxic Tours" of the region. It also publicized the plight of Diamond residents by threatening to bring a Greenpeace ship up the Mississippi River and moor it next to Shell's facilities in Norco.

Eventually, Richard took the battle to Congress and, with a grant from the Sierra Club, to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1999. There, writes Steve Lerner, "members of the delegation wore buttons that read 'U.S Environmental Racism Must Stop' and passed out information packets about their struggle." They also promoted the "idea that environmental injustices suffered by people of color in the United States were human rights violations." Richard went to the Netherlands (home of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group) to speak with top Shell officials.

Eventually, Shell agreed to negotiate, if only for the sake of public relations. At the time, Shell was busy promoting its "green goals" and trying to fashion an image of the company as a socially responsible corporation that was sensitive to environment issues and the welfare of communities near its facilities.

Meanwhile, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg was fast approaching, and environmentalists threatened Shell that they would focus international attention on the plight of Diamond residents. Shell decided that damage control was far less costly than such negative publicity. By June 2002, Shell reached a historic agreement to buy up the home of anyone in Diamond who wanted to relocate. Those who chose to stay would receive generous home improvement loans that would be forgiven over five years.

Winning the Battle, Losing the Community

Although major environmental organizations provided invaluable assistance to Diamond activists, such collaboration is not all that common. In a very real sense, mainstream environmental organizations and local environmental justice activists come from two very different worlds and are often concerned about two different kinds of environmental dangers. "The likely reason for this," writes Steve Lerner,

is that many environmental activists have yet to see the connection between the preservation of wilderness and the cleaning up of heavily contaminated poor communities, despite the fact that the decontamination of brownfield sites in many parts of the country already provides living space for many Americans who might otherwise live in an area that was previously farmland, rangeland, or forest.

When large groups fail to help environmental justice groups, however, they deprive local activists of invaluable "lobbying talents and resources" and rob them of the political support they need to control releases from chemical plants.

What many environmental activists also fail to understand, explains Lerner, "is that this emerging movement is a civil rights issue. By highlighting the disproportionate toxic burden that some poor and minority communities endure, environmental justice activists have effectively opened a new front in the long struggle for civil rights."

The legacy of Diamond is significant. Gary Cohen of the Environmental Health Fund thinks that "'the Diamond struggle will be seen as a watershed event where the toxics and the environmental health movement learned that bringing international pressure to bear could yield an environmental justice win and help leverage a larger engagement with one of the largest corporations in the world.'"

Out of this struggle, moreover, has come the awareness that all industrial plants must have "buffer zones" that protect residents and their homes. "What is needed," writes Lerner, "is new legislation that will protect residents of settlements adjacent to highly toxic and explosive industrial facilities."

But Lerner also understands that such legislation is just a beginning. As his brother Michael later wrote, "To get environmental contamination under control will require fundamentally restructuring society on a sustainable basis. That is the vision and it is every bit as compelling as the vision that moved us from monarchy to democracy, from slavery to equal rights and women as property to the women's movement today."

So what happened to Diamond? CCN was unable to win the right for the entire community to be moved together. "Most residents I interviewed," writes Lerner, "feel whipsawed by conflicting emotions about staying and leaving. On the one hand, they want to get out of Diamond to escape the pollution from the Shell plants; on the other hand, they want to stay because of the close ties they have with their neighbors." Still, in the end, "most residents have decided that the environmental conditions are so distressing that despite their ties to the community they are ready to leave."

As a result, Diamond has basically disappeared.

Within months, nearly every home in Diamond was bulldozed, burned, or disassembled as residents took Shell up on its relocation offer and moved to safety. The residents had won their struggle, but their beloved community was transformed into another fenceline ghost town. It was a victory for the residents to have won the relocation offer from Shell, but it was a bittersweet victory that meant the end of their community and the severing of the ties with the land, their neighbors and their churches.

If this were a film, it is the kind of ending that an independent filmmaker would understand, but probably not Hollywood producers determined to send audiences away with an inspirational message that the system, after all, always works in the end.

Ruth Rosen, professor emerita of history at the University of California, Davis, is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, Calif. and the author, most recently, of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America" (2001). This article was reprinted with permission from Dissent Magazine (Winter 2005).