Growing Up in Cancer Alley
Four generations of Richard's family have lived in Old Diamond, a neighborhood within the southern Mississippi River region known as "Cancer Alley." Old Diamond is plagued with reportedly high rates of cancer, birth defects and other serious health ailments among the 1,500 residents who lived on the four square blocks sandwiched between the Shell plant and a Motiva oil refinery owned by a Shell subsidiary. More than a third of Norco's children suffer from asthma or bronchitis. Richard's sister Naomi died at age 43 from sarcoidosis, a rare bacterial infection. The disease typically strikes one in a thousand people, yet Richard knows of at least three other neighbors who suffer from the same sickness.
Shell has been a fixture in Norco, located 25 miles west of New Orleans, since 1929. Over the years, the plant, with its looming tanks and belching vapor stacks, has grown to the size of nine football fields. The corporation has steadily bought out property from neighboring residents, many of whom were descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who farmed the land in the days before the Civil War. Other families simply fled to escape the health hazards associated with living in Old Diamond. Most of the ones who stayed were trapped by socio-economic conditions and other family responsibilities.
A Fatal Gas Blast
In 1989, Richard, then a middle school teacher, founded Concerned Citizens of Norco to seek justice from Shell in the form of fair and just resettlement costs for her family and her neighbors.
In addition to serving as a community representative on a high-level EPA regulatory committee, she took her battle to the courts, acting as plaintiff in a high profile but ultimately unsuccessful class action suit against Shell. She has organized press conferences and local "bucket brigades," empowering her neighbors with specially outfitted plastic buckets so they could monitor hazardous air pollutants on their own as well as educational workshops sponsored by Xavier University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
Richard also has a sharp eye for political theater. At one point she had a Web camera installed on her trailer home to broadcast live feeds of the refinery spewing petrochemical byproducts. While speaking at an international environmental conference in Holland, Richard approached Shell officials and invited them to take a sniff from a bag of Norco air.
Her untiring efforts have attracted powerful allies including U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and helped spur an investigation by the EPA that faulted Shell for failing to ensure plant safety and for falsifying its emissions reporting, a practice confirmed by a company whistleblower. Throughout the campaign, Richard, who the local media calls Norco's "chief rabble-rouser," faced stiff resistance from Shell officials who aggressively discouraged her group from seeking outside counsel and refused to hold open meetings with community members.
"There were times I thought it was an impossible task," Richard recalled. "I remember standing in my yard thinking, 'Lord, will there ever be hope?' But a little voice within me kept saying, 'If we don't tell them, how will they know?'"
No More Shell Games
A Victory for Environmental Justice
"Every time we as black Americans stand up for what is right, they say it's for greed of money. It's a fight for longevity," Richard has said. "If we don't put a face to it, we can't make change. Truth and justice for the betterment of life, the environment and government is the stairway to upward mobility."
Richard's activism has also taken her abroad. In 2002 she spoke at the World Summit on Sustainable Development and met with citizen groups in South Africa struggling with contamination from industrial run-off. This year, as in years past, she plans to help lead an international delegation to Royal Dutch/Shell's annual general meeting (April 24-25) in London where she will pressure the corporation to take responsibility for its dirty industrial practices and the medical costs associated with treating environmental illness.
"Whether she's on the steps of the U.N. or in Nigeria, or in her own front yard, she is not intimidated by whatever circumstances she is faced with," said Maura Wood of the Sierra Club's regional office in Louisiana. "She sets out to get the message of her community out to the world."