EJ Corps Week Three: Welcome to Norco

Darryl Malek-Wiley of Sierra Club talks to LABB members about Louisiana's Cancer Alley while standing in a park built by Shell next to its plant in Norco.

This post summarizes week three of Schree Greene’s Environmental Justice Corps fellowship at LABB. Last week, LABB members took an environmental justice tour with the Sierra Club around Norco and other communities along the Mississippi River west of New Orleans — what is known as Cancer Alley.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club organizer, took some time out on Tuesday to introduce us to the town of Norco. Much like the town, the residents are very quiet and charmingly subtle. However, quiet doesn’t always mean that nothing ever happens.

The residents of Norco have been fighting against petrochemical plants since the 1970s. Malek-Wiley stated, “African-American residents started to fight back early, because the petrochemical plants moved on top of their communities and they knew the long-term effects.”  Unfortunately officials and refinery managers began to harass the African American residents, claiming their worries were unfounded because Norco had the cleanest air around.

Clearly Norco’s air is no cleaner than a landfill. With a population of approximately 3,400 residents, there are at least six major oil and petrochemical plants around Norco and across the river from it that pump millions of pollutants into the air. With six major plants around such a small town, is it really logical to think the air is clean?

In 1988, the Shell Oil plant suffered a huge explosion due to poor maintenance.  Five workers were killed, hundreds of residents suffered damage to the roofs of their homes, and property damages climbed to $100 million. Not only is one of the facilities located next to the former African-American neighborhood of Diamond (most of the homes were bought out by Shell in 2002), but there is now a health clinic being built on the abandoned land right next to the petrochemical plant.

To repay the people of Norco, Shell built a community baseball field/park right next to a petrochemical plant that emits harmful chemicals such as benzene, sulfur compounds and epychlor. Needless to say, the park is rarely used except for visiting groups learning about the environmental injustices in the area.

Concerned community members such as Iris Brown Carter and Margie Richard continuously fight the battle against neighboring petrochemical plants. Today, Iris Brown Carter, who now suffers from environmental-related asthma, and Margie Richard, a long-time witness to the environmental injustice and a Goldman Environmental Prize winner, actively keep residents involved and aware of the surrounding health hazards.

They have partnered with groups like LABB and the Sierra Club over the years to advocate for change.

“I have lost plenty of jobs and friends because of my fight against environmental justice. I don’t care. I’m for what’s environmentally right.” said Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club organizer.

This is the first time I have witnessed environmental injustice from companies as prominent as ExxonMobil and Shell Oil. I often wonder if this is a problem only in the South. When I critically think about this situation, it reminds me of how hard it is for the black farmers in North Carolina to gain the rights to the land they are entitled to. As I investigate all of the issues surrounding environmental injustice in Louisiana, I am quickly starting to understand that environmental injustice anywhere, is environmental injustice everywhere.

“Go to school and get your education. Do not be swallowed up by the institutions that continue to create policies and laws that allow destruction to continue to happen to vulnerable citizens of this country. You have to maintain and hold onto your moral principles. We should challenge the institutions to change as well.” — Gary Grant, President of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

This entry was posted in Environmental Justice Corps, Oil Refineries, Public Health. Bookmark the permalink.

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