Diamond in the Rough

In a new book, author Steve Lerner recounts how the tiny community of Diamond became a springboard for the environmental justice movement.



Today, the four streets that constitute the neighborhood of Diamond are almost empty. What was once a lively subdivision of the town of Norco is now reverting to nature. Mobile homes have been towed away and abandoned houses have been demolished. Over the new greenspace loom the towers of Shell Chemical, the entity that both frightened residents into leaving and paid for their relocation.

The neighborhood and its long struggle for relocation are the subject of Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor. The tiny community of Diamond became known across the world as "the poster child for the environmental justice movement," says author Steve Lerner. The experiences of local activists illuminate the growing maturity of that movement and point to its future, he says.

Lerner has written about social and environmental justice issues for 30 years, producing books on "eco-pioneers" and the cleanup of contaminated and derelict industrial sites in low-income communities. He discovered the town of Norco through his job as research director for the nonprofit organization Commonweal, which studies links between health and the environment.

Lerner initially came to Diamond expecting to do only a handful of interviews for an oral history project. But the stories he heard fascinated him. "I felt the need to preserve the voices of the people who were on the fenceline with Shell and had been involved in the relocation struggle with Shell for 20 years," he says.

Most people have caught fragments of the story in newspapers over the years, but Lerner's book puts the entire narrative together. He skips back to the antebellum days of the Diamond plantation, and discusses the halcyon time in the early 20th century when the descendants of freed slaves called their neighborhood Belltown and lived in both the old slave quarters and the plantation house. That was before Shell Chemical came to town in 1953, buying the Belltown land from its absentee owners for $109,000.

Most residents moved to the nearby community of Diamond when Shell razed the buildings and constructed the plant, a move that Diamond activists see as the first in a string of injustices. White workers had already begun moving into the east side of Norco to staff an oil refinery built to the east of town. The black residents clustered on the four streets to the west, immediately adjacent to the chemical plant and divided from the white part of town by a wooded strip of land.

Diamond residents say they began to fear the plant in 1973, when a gas leak and explosion killed two people -- a 16-year-old boy who was mowing a neighbor's lawn, and an elderly woman who was inside her house taking a nap. Another accident occurred in 1988, when seven workers died and the chemical release required the evacuation of 4,500 people.

Residents began to worry that asthma and other health problems in their community were linked to the chemical odors they often smelled on the air. In 1990, residents began organizing in hopes of forcing Shell to take their grievances seriously. They founded the Concerned Citizens of Norco and elected a schoolteacher named Margie Richard as president.

Lerner says that during the course of his research in 2002, he quickly came to understand the basis of the residents' fears. "You can go to Diamond-Norco, and it can be beautiful day and everything seems fine," he says. "But then you spend a night there, and you get it -- you get what the complaint is about. It's more than in your face, it's in your lungs, and you're coughing. It's a violation at a very intimate level."

Lily Galland, a spokesperson for Shell Chemical in Norco, says that to the best of the company's knowledge there are no adverse health effects linked to living in close proximity to the facility. The plant's permit sets its emissions at safe levels, she says, and it has reduced flaring, a symptom of accidental emissions, by 50 percent since 1998. Galland, who grew up in Norco, says she never had any concerns over air quality.

In Diamond, Lerner doesn't hide his deep sympathies with the Diamond residents. "I'm unapologetic about the perspective it comes from," he says. But he insists that the book is a work of reporting, not activism. He says he was careful to allow Shell space to respond to the claims of the Concerned Citizens. He was limited, he says, only by lack of access to Shell officials and records.

Galland read Diamond and says that from Shell's perspective, not everything happened the way Lerner recounts it. But Lerner says he is confident in his conclusions. "The preponderance of evidence that I found was that these people had been treated in a very shabby way, that they had not been protected by the state or federal officials, that they had been exposed to dangerous amounts of chemicals, and that it had most likely affected their health," he says. "And their story needed to be told."

IN 2000, AFTER A DECADE of agitation by the Concerned Citizens, Shell told Diamond residents that it would buy any property on the two streets closest to the plant for a price above market value. The company recognized that property values had decreased dramatically as a result of the plant's proximity, and offered departing residents enough money to buy a comparable house elsewhere. But residents in the tight-knit community protested the exclusion on the people living on the other two streets, saying the proposal divided relatives and neighbors who helped each other with the daily tasks of living.

During the following two years, the residents' protests reached a new intensity -- and a wider audience. Local organizations including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University amplified the citizens' message with press conferences and protests. Soon, the national environmental groups Sierra Club and Greenpeace joined the fray as well.

The Concerned Citizens' story became internationally embarrassing to Shell, says Lerner. He cites Margie Richard's trip to the Netherlands, Shell's corporate home, where she interrupted a presentation by Shell executives to testify about what life was like in Norco. "Having someone who has the direct experience of being on the wrong end of these toxic releases is much more powerful than having a high-priced lawyer talk about parts per million," Lerner says. "Having Margie stand up with a bottle of polluted water and saying, ŒThis is what we live with' -- that's what really was effective."

In 2002, Shell offered to buy out the remaining residents of Diamond, while also proffering home-improvement loans that would be forgiven over a five-year period to those who chose to stay.

According to Shell spokesperson Galland, the offer was not made in response to the residents' fears for their health. "The buy-out program was part of a program that we've had in place for 30 years," she says. "The goal was to create a green belt or a buffer zone, so to speak."

Shell accelerated the program in 2000 and expanded it in 2002 to smooth community relations and address the special needs of the Diamond community, Galland says.

"Unlike other parts of Norco, you had people who relied on each other. You had people who couldn't drive, so they couldn't get to the doctor or the grocery store without help," Galland says. "But it was not based on the belief that we are harming people."

Lerner's book argues to the contrary, but he focuses on the end result. "This was a David-and-Goliath victory," he says. "The fact that a small group of local citizens were able to come together and prevail is amazing."

The relatively young field of environmental justice is based on the belief that discrimination occurs when heavy industry is disproportionately sited in low-income or minority communities. During the Diamond campaign, organizers built connections between communities throughout the chemical corridor. Lerner hopes that the involvement of Sierra Club and Greenpeace in the Diamond campaign signals that national environmental groups will start embracing environmental justice campaigns.

"There are fights within these organizations," he says. "They're asking, is this part of our mission? We started out protecting wilderness, and now we're talking about people living next to factories.

"The big 10 environmental groups have been reasonably criticized for being elitist in their focus and not very diversified in their membership," says Lerner. If groups such as the Sierra Club take on environmental justice issues, he predicts, they can diversify their memberships. "The people on the fenceline are on the frontline of the environmental movement in this country. These are the people who wake up in the middle of the night when there's a (chemical) release, and have to go into the bathroom and put a wet washcloth over their faces so they don't choke!"

Lerner also hopes that civil rights groups can be brought in as new allies for fenceline communities. The number of minority neighborhoods situated next to factories shows a clear pattern of discrimination, he says. "I think over time there's going to be a growing awareness that environmental justice is a new vital center of the civil rights movement."

AS THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF DIAMOND has changed, Shell Chemical has as well. Galland says the Diamond campaign taught the company the importance of communication. "I feel that industry as a whole -- though I can only speak for Shell -- we should have done a better job over the years in communicating with our neighbors and understanding what their concerns were," says Galland. "We should have had more one-on-one contact with people over the years."

Louisiana's environmental activists hope this model of accord will set the tone in other conflicts between communities and industry in the chemical corridor. Anne Rolfes, the director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, says she's already seen one such example. "Right down the road from Norco in Reserve, Louisiana, the Marathon oil refinery is buying out its neighbors," she says. "They have definitely used the Norco deal as a blueprint."

But Lerner says there are too many communities like Diamond across the country. To take on the systemic problem, organizers of environmental justice campaigns will have to unite and demand regulatory relief. "Should there be rules about buffer zones?" he asks. "Should there be rules about how close a community can be to a highly toxic facility? It makes sense, not only because of the accumulated health impacts over time, but also from the perspective of emergency planning.

"These people (in Diamond) were just too close," Lerner says. "They wouldn't have been able to get out of the way if something really bad happened. That needs to change, so residential populations aren't living cheek by jowl with toxic industries."

Add a comment