Blog post by LABB Intern, Callie Casstevens
Yesterday, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade Interns visited Norco, Louisiana to meet with community activist and all around amazing woman, Iris Brown Carter. Driving down Washington Street, empty lots lined the right side of the street, where once a thriving community existed, and directly on the left side of the street, a chain length fence stands, erected in front of the massive SHELL refinery.
We met Iris on a basketball court, which SHELL built for children that is directly across the street from storage tanks and smoke stacks. We noticed that the basketball court did not look normal; the concrete looked more like a building’s foundation than an actual court. Iris explained how the basketball court used to be the elementary school for Norco, however, when desegregation was initiated, the school “mysteriously” burned down and SHELL erected a playground in its place years later.
We sat in the picnic area, and I had to wonder if people actually cooked out across the street from the refinery. Carved into the picnic table was the word Norco, which holds significant meaning for the residents (both past and present) in the area. Norco was not always known as Norco, in fact, the original name of the community was Settler’s, but when the refineries started moving into the community in the 1920’s, they had the city’s name changed to Norco. Iris shook her head as she placed her hands on the table and explained that Norco stands for “New Orleans Refining Company,” and now the city is exactly that, a refining company. Very few residents remain in the area, scattered through the oak and pine trees are small houses but most of the residents on Washington Street were relocated in 2002-2003. The hot wind whipped across our faces as we sat and listened to Iris, but something else caught our attention…the smell. The smell was overwhelming, it’s akin to getting in a car with the windows rolled up and no ventilation, and a bottle of chemical cleaner is open…it was stifling. At one point we had to get up and stand in a way to avoid the wind that was coming from the refinery, I cannot imagine growing up and living in that type of chemical environment.
The location we were standing on was also significant, it was the site of the largest slave revolt in history in 1811, yet no historical markers can be seen, no plaques, nothing. The community was made to be invisible, and as Iris said, “You cannot let them make you invisible.” She has done just that, refused to be ignored, pushed aside, or placated by the powerful PR machine the facilities introduce into effected fence-line communities such as Norco.
The physical and mental pains that the facilities have caused the community cannot be understated. Iris has lost her Mother, sister, Uncle, cousins, all who lived in the same block across the street from SHELL. Her loss motivated her to push for change, stronger regulations, transparency and a need for safety preparation. When the community was relocated, the facility gave the residents the bar minimum amount of money to move, Iris described how many took the offer, despite the fact it was so little because, “when you have your back up against the wall you take what you can get.” Thus, this once close knit community was scattered throughout the Parishes in Louisiana, losing the community family that had existed for so long.
Iris has continued to fight for the community, for the effected residents and visited the facility head quarters in London, England, where she invited the representatives to come and spend the night in the Norco neighborhood; no one took her up on the offer. Iris also went to Washington D.C., to attend the conference called, “Making Corporations Accountable. The lack of political help is also an issue, politicians stay away from aiding these communities because most of their campaign contributions come from the very facilities that communities are trying to have regulated. This is a conflict of interest that is dangerous, because one side is not just losing a simple argument; they are losing out on their health and their happiness.
Throughout the summer I have interned for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, I have come to see definite patterns throughout the affected communities. First, the communities affected are usually minorities, who feel ignored and left to fend for themselves. Second, Convent, St. Bernard, as well as Norco all have only one road in and one road out, which is dangerous if a refinery accident occurs, or even a hurricane. The number of people who would have to evacuate would lead to major congestion, and the time wasted on trying to get out would place people in a hazardous situation. Communities like Norco exist throughout the state of Louisiana, and the patterns of facilities behavior are consistent. The facility will have PR personnel assure the communities they are safe, residents will express concern, the facility will propose gifts such as free car washes, or in some cases, free salons for women’s hair and nails. These tactics are meant to placate the individuals, however, the problems remain. Iris noted how BP is handling the oil spill in much the same way as the fence line refineries. The Gulf Coast residents are experiencing serious health effects from exposure, however, they are told everything is fine…everything is safe…just like the residents who live near refineries have been told for decades.
When Iris was asked what she tells other communities that are affected by facilities such as Shell, she sighed and stated, “Don’t give up, keep telling them, I want out of here, I want out of here, never change your tune, but most importantly don’t give up.” Iris is such an inspiring woman, she has worked tirelessly in networking communities, getting the message out, and being heard, she’s not allowing herself or the message to be made invisible.