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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

April 23, 2004

Air Date: April 23, 2004

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SEGMENTS

Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

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Part One: Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Margie Richard, the first African-American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Ms. Richard organized her Norco, Louisiana neighborhood to put pressure on Shell Chemical to respond to community concerns about their plant and oil refinery. After many years, the company agreed to relocate the community and reduce plant emissions.
Part Two: We continue our conversation with Goldman Environmental Prize winner Margie Richard. She tells host Steve Curwood about her campaign demanding Shell Chemical give fair and just relocation for the residents of Norco, Louisiana. (23:15)

Living on the Fence Line, Texas-style / Deepa Donde

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Part One: When a man returns to his hometown on the Texas Gulf Coast, he's shocked at how dirty the air seems and begins organizing. Port Arthur is home to six of the 500 refineries and industrial plants on Texas's upper Gulf Coast. Deepa Donde reports.
Part Two: Producer Deepa Donde's report on efforts to clean up the air in Port Arthur Texas continues as she visits long-time residents who fear the air may be hurting their health. (20:15)

Precious Wonder / Tom Lopez

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Tom Lopez offers an ode to the magic and music of the singing frogs of South America’s Pantanal region. (04:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUEST: Margie RichardREPORTERS: Deepa Donde, Tom Lopez

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Generations ago, the ancestors of Margie Richard put slavery behind them and settled in a community along the Mississippi called Old Diamond. Through the years they built a life, neighbor to neighbor, until the day a new neighbor moved in next door. The new neighbor was an oil and chemical plant that brought pollution, accidents, and illness to town.

RICHARD: No longer did I see the beauty of the buttercups, the clovers, fields full of corn, beautiful trees. I saw the operation of a plant. But at the same time, my inner spirit began to say “something must be done for the generations behind us, as well as for my family.”

CURWOOD: And something she did. Margie Richard took on the oil giant and the story of her showdown with Shell is just ahead on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Margie Richard grew up in the Old Diamond neighborhood of Norco, Louisiana. She was the fourth generation of her family to live in Old Diamond – an African-American neighborhood where many residents were descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. Norco was also home to a Shell refinery complex. Shell built their first plant in the town in the 1920’s and over the years expanded by buying up neighboring properties.

The company employed many residents from the white section of Norco, known as Sellars, but few blacks. Margie Richard grew up just 25 feet from the fence line of the Shell facilities. When her family and neighbors started suffering health problems and living in constant fear of industrial accidents, Margie said she could not stand idle. She organized her community to stand up to Shell and demand that residents be relocated.


Margie Richard in front of her new home in Destrehan, Louisiana. (Photo: Jim Iocona)

RICHARD: Twelve-thirty at night, it comes out. Six-thirty in the morning, it’s in the air. In the evening, it’s in the air. We’re not standing up to divide; we’re standing up to unite. Thank you [APPLAUSE].

CURWOOD: Margie Richard has just been honored for her activism, becoming the first African-American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She joins me now to talk about her organizing experiences. Margie, Norco was a company town, of sorts. What kind of neighbor was Shell when you were growing up?

RICHARD: You must understand the scene and the setting at that time. People were still living, in that particular section, and I guess in other parts I know of the United States, we were living under separate but equal laws before we had the abolishment of slavery. We also had – I had generations of ancestors who lived under these laws and they were fully enforced. So you must remember that when I came along as a fourth generation person, activities that went on in the predominantly African-American society was very good. The school, the church – there was a balance with the social, physical, emotional, and the spiritual side.

However, those who were in the predominantly white area had the same thing going on, with only one thing, perhaps, that was very good for them – most of the people in the predominantly white section worked for industry, and the company did build the town. However, I guess we were forgotten. I don’t know. But we did not have the swimming pool, we did not have all of the recreational things that were created by the company, for the blacks in the old Belltown section, or the Old Diamond Plantation area.

CURWOOD: Your father was an activist in his own right, right?

RICHARD: Yes, he was.

CURWOOD: And he wasn’t so wild about the notion that the African-American part of town didn’t have jobs. So, tell me, what happened when he went to town officials to try to get more for the community?

RICHARD: When he went, along with the Oddfellows – they were leaders in the town, they were well respected – my dad had done his homework. He knew the law, he knew his rights according to the Constitution, and he also knew his rights according to the most read book in the land, and that is the Bible. So he went with faith, strength, and he had it all together. So when he presented and asked for these things, it wasn’t a turning away, because he used his intelligence. And he was the one who was determined to get bus transportation for our children for school. And that did happen, there was transportation for blacks in the areas of St. Rose – which are neighboring towns – St. Rose, Montz, and New Sarpy was bused to the school in Norco because a high school was built. It was named after Ms. Bethune, Mary McLeod Bethune.

CURWOOD: So, there came a time – Shell started its refinery work there in the 20’s, but then there came a time that much of the black community was forced to move, I guess because of planned expansion. What happened then?

RICHARD: People began to move because Shell had purchased more land in the area. And that was the area of part of the Old Diamond plantation. Many of the people and residents -- I know my dad and my family did -- we moved not very far because that’s all we could afford. The property was inexpensive, and so therefore. they just bought farther down the road where most of them could afford because they did not get a whole lot of money to relocate. So they moved where the money brought them, and that was in the other section of the Old Diamond plantation.

Shell Chemicals Norco petrochemical plant in Norco, Lousiana, along the Mississippi River. (Photo: Jim Iocona)

CURWOOD: So here you are, living along the Mississippi River in this close-knit community where you have your parents, your grandparents, you’ve got cousins and uncles and aunts, and brothers and sisters. And life is really pretty wonderful, and you have your own career, you start teaching. At what point do you decide that Shell might not be such a wonderful neighbor?

RICHARD: You must understand that the life in most of the black communities – or in that section I know – we did things together as groups. At PTA meetings there was active people -- mother, children, fathers, uncles, aunts. Everything was centered around this. When you went to church, it was groups. When you went to recreational activities, it was groups. So people would talk, and I remember hearing people begin to talk about how they were beginning to cough and feel aches and pains.

And very young I heard them talk about the ills of the plant but I didn’t pay much attention to it then until it hit home. My sister, who became very ill and suffered from tired fatigue syndrome. Even during some of her pregnancies, due to perhaps an explosion at the plant – you must remember that even moving in another section we were still about 17 to 25 feet away from the fence line, so you heard all the operations going on, the noise level. Looking at the steam, we call it, and the smoke and the soot and the odors, I became very aware that something was wrong.

And my sister, later on, had what was called sarcoidosis which was not diagnosed when she first had it. It was diagnosed years later. So, therefore, her lungs deteriorated and it was almost like, something must be done. And also I can remember, standing in the front yard of our new home when I look over at the plant and I’m saying, “God, this is too close.” No longer did I see the beauty of the buttercups, the clovers, fields full of corn, beautiful trees. I saw the operation of a plant. But at the same time my inner spirit began to say something must be done for the generations behind us, as well as for my family.

CURWOOD: A number of incidents occurred that I understand made you want to take action and hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for their activities. Could you describe for me some of these and the effect that they had on you?

RICHARD: Yes, I can. Deep within my heart I knew something had to be done. Deep within my heart I did not want to be like many people, when justice needs to surface and override injustice. I felt that if I would use the skills and think about what my ancestors had done, and, especially, my father who believed in making a difference, I just knew that something had to be done to preserve the health and life of many people.

Because even if people were not sick from the other activities where they say it’s very hard to prove that many diseases are caused by the things we breathe in the air – I knew this wasn’t true because there was living facts right in front of my eyes. I knew that something had to be done.

So my plea went: if the local people don’t hear us, then if I ever had the opportunity to go all the way and deal with the owners of the company, somebody must hear because the cry began to get greater. And even greater after there were so many who lost their lives from asthma, and so many who lost their lives from respiratory diseases. And I said it was too much to bear. The risk was too high.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you could take me for a virtual walk down your street and tell me what happened to the people in the various houses, and why you might think what happened to them was linked to being next to the Shell refinery and chemical plant.

RICHARD: It was linked to them because I found out that there was a pattern. And the pattern was almost everybody on our street -- no matter where you went, no matter how you gather, no matter if you went to the local supermarket -- you would hear such comments as “Child, did you hear the plant roaring last night? I could not sleep.” “Did you smell that odor today? Oh, it smelled like gas.” “Did you smell that odor? It was like garlic mixed with bleach.”

And this was a constant talk. And then people began to get sick. There were respiratory machines in almost every house. And then starting with my house – it was the first house on the street – we had machines, oxygen machines, from my mother to the grandkids, to the death of my sister. Next door, after talking to the two young ladies who lived there – one of them was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. And then went down the street a little further – somebody else was diagnosed with liver cancer. Yet, you go down further, it’s the same thing, asthma.

And it’s like, this is beginning to become such a burden until you could see the oppression and depression on people’s faces. And even myself, I’d gotten to a point where we don’t want to go to sleep. Because of previous accidents we wanted to be ready to go, ready to run, ready to move, and it became a matter of survival. It also became a matter of--do I stay here and perish, and die, or do I try to do something about it so that there can be help and deliverance for people?

Shell Chemicals Norco petrochemical plant viewed from the fenceline that separates it from the Old Diamond neighborhood. Margie Richard grew up in a house 25 yards away from the plant. (Photo: Jim Iocona)

CURWOOD: In 1989, you and your community founded the Concerned Citizens of Norco. What did you hope to accomplish with that?

RICHARD: The accomplishment of that was to be well organized, to identify our problems, to come up with facts and proof -- versus that of myths or you say, I say, or hearsay -- to negotiate with the owners of the plant locally, to negotiate with the public relations people. To identify these problems, to work out a plan for solving these problems versus the old method of a status quo, of having things written on paper and then not following through. So it was concerned so that the people in Norco and the Old Diamond plantation would have a right to be relocated from the operations of the plant so that they can enjoy where they work, live, and play without the ills and the fear.

CURWOOD: Our conversation with Margie Richard will continue in just a minute. We’ll hear about her efforts to get Shell Oil to relocate the residents of the Old Diamond neighborhood. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

If you’ve just tuned in, we’re talking with Margie Richard. She and her fellow residents of the Old Diamond neighborhood in Norco, Louisiana organized to form Concerned Citizens of Norco. The group put pressure on Shell Chemical to hear community concerns about the plant and oil refinery emissions and to pay to relocate their community. Concerned Citizens was largely an African American group.

Now, the white neighborhood of Norco also lived close to the Shell plant and they probably had the same kinds of health and noise concerns as you did, Margie. Why do you suppose not many of the white residents, if any of them, got involved in the organizing?

RICHARD: Well, you see, most of the people were employees of the plant so, therefore, they had no reason to complain because in the beginning it was a company town. But it was a company town that met the needs of the predominantly white – and I’m not a racist, but that was a fact.

CURWOOD: Was the white community as close to the fence line as the black community?

RICHARD: In one section, the last street. But because of our move they had an opportunity to be included in the volunteer purchase program and receive the same amount that many of the people in the African-American area did after the challenges. Before that there was an incident that happened in ’73, and the company began to buy property in the Old Diamond area. But it was not enough for anyone to be relocated or to start all over again. And that’s why the organization stood up for fair and just relocation so that people could have enough to relocate where they wanted to versus the old method of you take what I give you and that’s it.

CURWOOD: So, you had some pretty interesting activist techniques, I understand. You put together bucket brigades, and I gather that’s not to put out a fire. And you set up a web-cam so that the plant was available to anyone in the world who had the Internet to see what was coming off it. Tell me, what was the bucket brigade?

RICHARD: The bucket brigade was an instrument used to capture the air, because we were constantly told that it was us, it wasn’t in the air. So this was a mechanism or a facility or a gadget that was put together and approved by EPA. And the results of this – once you get the air in it, you send it off to the lab and the lab would detect what was in the air. And it was proof. It was no longer just saying you people are making noise. So, therefore, these facts were presented. After presenting these facts to EPA, they were also asked to come down and investigate. Something else happened when they came down.

CURWOOD: What was that?

RICHARD: At the end of Washington Street, where I lived, in 1998, a resin tank overheated. When it overheated, parts of the tank top went into the air and it fell on the school ground where the children were playing basketball. And other parts of it was in the air and dropped about two feet away from my house and we were looking at it. So the people in the Diamond area was aware of what went on because we heard the big boom, but nobody else did, I guess, in the other section. But we saw it. And it’s almost like, at the time – we had cameras, we were on the spot because we were just determined to have facts to present for our struggles to industry. So, when we called the public relation person we discussed these matters. And these are some of the things that helped us to have the facts that we needed in order to be relocated.

CURWOOD: How did Shell react to your concerns then, and how has that changed?

RICHARD: In the very beginning it was very difficult because I think there were those who thought we were just making noise to make noise. And if there’s anything that disturbs me most as an individual in the United States of America, it’s for anyone to stereotype classes of people. And I think I had experience from the 60’s and all that we stereotype too much, especially the African-American race. That we make noise and it’s for the greed of money. Well, it wasn’t, because we were all taught the value of work. If anything it was for our constitutional rights. We had a right to enjoy where we live, work, and play, just like anyone else.

And in the beginning we were not heard; we were turned away. We were treated as if we were not human beings, and that hurts more than anything. But when you look at a hurt, it can become anger. But not a type of anger to destroy, a type of anger that says by faith you walk on. You keep pressing on. And then you get to the table and finally the people who were inside the plant began to hear us. Again, in the very beginning, we had to protest, not just to make noise. But as my dad had said, if you make noise and nothing is done, a change will not come. So you negotiate in order to progress. And after coming to the table, then it was the beginning of upward mobility for us to be relocated.

CURWOOD: You were instrumental, of course, in getting Shell to pay for the relocation of the residents of your neighborhood. Where are people going? And what is going on with the emissions that Shell is making from that plant? There are still some people, obviously, still living there.

RICHARD: Yes, because it was a volunteer purchase program. But you must remember this: when the program was first devised, the people from the community did not have input. And this is why I have to say we communicated, we challenged, and then the change came. We challenged the program and people had input. At this time, we were being heard so the people of the community gave input as to what should be done. To compare our houses with houses outside of the Diamond area, and it was.

Many of the people who left are happy, many of the people who stayed are happy. It’s almost like win-win because this is what happened. Those who were there were promised to never be mistreated again. Also they agreed to cut down on the emissions. That is being monitored and done. There were no ambient monitors in the community; they were only inside the plant. And as a result of being fined for the emission that was over the amount – that was by the state and by the federal government – that is being put back in the community and people asked that this be done. Because many times when violations come up, the money is used for everybody and everything besides the people who’s affected the most in the communities. So, therefore, it’s an ongoing upward mobility thing. And the emissions are being cut down.

CURWOOD: How much of the community moved away in the relocation, and where are you now?

RICHARD: I’m in an area called Destrehan. Many of my relatives are there, and some of them are in a place called Laplace, Louisiana and Reserve. We’re all a half an hour drive or 15 minutes away from each other. And there are many who question and say, well if the air was bad there, it’s bad where you are. Well, there is something other people must understand. If they didn’t live where we lived, and you wake up every morning and you open your door and he first thing you see is the steam. The first thing you hear is the noise from the trucks banging. The next thing you hear is an intercom that overpowers anything you have.

They don’t understand that just being away from the sight is relief. And the flares are not as high anymore, the flaring has been cut down. There is cooperation. And then there’s another side to this. There are also those who say, well, maybe we give too much credit to industry. No, I’ve always said this: we’re in this together, we need each other. So we need to come together to solve these problems because if you keep on oppressing and depressing me, it’s affecting everybody. I mean me collectively, not me individually. So I think together, if we come to the table and put these things up, the only way we can solve these problems and improve is to listen to each other. And that is on the table.

CURWOOD: What’s the lessons that other communities might be able to learn from your experience?

RICHARD: If they have a problem, don’t sit among yourselves and talk about it for generations after generations. Get a plan of action, work on it, and ask for meetings. Go straight to the head and deal with the persons involved to get a plan of action, to be heard, and to be treated like every human being. If you don’t, it will go on in a circle and all it will do is become bigger, bitter, angry. And if the bubble bursts in a totalness of anxiety, no one wins. So, my cry and my message is communicate, challenge, and look for changes.

CURWOOD: Margie Richard is the North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2004. She’s the first African-American recipient of the award and is being honored for her efforts for environmental justice from Shell Chemical in Norco, Louisiana. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

RICHARD: Thank you, and God bless you.

Related links:
- Information on 2004 Goldman Prize Winners
- TV Documentary on Norco “Fenceline: A Company Town Divided”

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Living on the Fence Line, Texas-style

CURWOOD: One of the places where Margie Richard plied her organizing skills is the community of Port Arthur, Texas. People up and down the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast face some of the same challenges as Norco when it comes to having industrial neighbors. The region has the largest concentration of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the nation. Some five hundred of these facilities run from Houston along the upper Gulf Coast. And unplanned releases of hazardous chemicals are frequent. These accidents have become a way of life for people who live near these plants, or as they call it, live on the fence-line. And, like Margie Richard, some folks are speaking out about it. Producer Deepa Donde reports from Port Arthur, Texas.

[COUNTRY MUSIC]

DONDE: Port Arthur, population 58,000, is at the far tip of the Texas coastal marshland, about 90 miles east of Houston. As you approach, signs for Spindletop, the first American oil gusher, and Janis Joplin’s hometown museum pop up on your left.

Nearer still, plumes of white smoke rise from the treetops – the green wall between the highway and the Gulf Coast refineries. The plants seem hidden, but they have been here since the oil boom at the turn of the 20th century. And so have generations of Port Arthur residents.

KELLEY: See the housing projects over there? That’s where I was born, right there. And my grandmother used to walk from there all the way down what we call Dunt Road.

DONDE: Hilton Kelley recently came back to Port Arthur from Hollywood. He had plenty of work there, in film and television, and his Screen Actors Guild card is still current. Kelley says he always knew he wanted to inspire kids with his success. But when he did come back, what struck him was the air.

KELLEY: I grew up looking at an orange sky. I thought it was normal until I moved away, went to California and found out that hey, at night the sky didn’t have to be a bright glowing orange. You didn’t have to smell sulfur all day long.

DONDE: In a freshly pressed shirt and khaki linen shorts, Hilton Kelley stands before a barbed wire fence. It divides some thirty houses from a tank farm, dozens of smokestacks, and a maze of piping.

KELLEY: You can see the refineries right there, bordering this community.

DONDE: At first, you smell something like burnt matches, but then it sharpens. A rotten eggy odor lingers in the heat. Most folks here have gotten used to the smell, including Kelley. That is, until he had a conversation with an elderly pastor.

KELLEY: He brought it to my attention by saying, “Son, I understand that you want to start a community center. But do you understand how polluted this area really is?” And so he started to give me a breakdown as to really what this town was facing.

DONDE: For the past three years now, Kelley has been trying to persuade residents to organize and demand cleaner air. But he’s found it slow-going.

[CAR SOUNDS]

KELLEY: They don’t understand how these chemicals coming out of these plants – when they talk about so much was released in the upset, they don’t equate that with “Wow, I’m breathing this stuff in. And this is why I’m coughing so much, or this is why my eyes are constantly watering all day.”

DONDE: He points to the day’s paper.

KELLEY: Two nights ago, they just had a pipeline explosion. I heard it and everything – boom! – it was so loud. See how orange the sky is right here? Here it is, front page. “Cause of explosion still under investigation. Natural gas pipeline ruptures.”

DONDE: And two days later, the details are still sketchy.

NEWSCASTER: Good morning everyone, I’m Andrea Bishop. Officials are still trying to figure out what caused that pipeline to leak and explode Tuesday night in Nederland. They believe….(fades under)

DONDE: From June 2002 to June of 2003, there were three hundred and forty upsets, or accidents, in the Port Arthur area. Among these were 56 more serious chemical spills, fires, and explosions, releasing millions of pounds of toxic chemicals such as benzene, tuolene, and xylene.

Frustration over numbers like this have lead Hilton Kelley to seek support from experts, people like Neil Carman, who was an investigator for 12 years at the Texas agency that monitors air quality. What he saw made him angry, so he quit. And now, Carman leads the Lone Star Sierra Club.

CARMAN: Port Arthur is a particularly egregious situation because there are so many poor people of color who are living along the fence line of these large industrial plants, the refineries and the chemical plants. I have been down there on a series of trips over the last 10 to 12 years and it’s been a very frustrating situation.

(Photo: Deepa Donde)

DONDE: Of the six plants in Port Arthur, only Motiva agreed to speak to us. The Motiva refinery is co-owned by Shell and Saudi Arabian Oil. Tracey McMinn is an advisor on government affairs for Shell Oil. She says Motiva has reduced emissions by ten percent. It has also invested $70 million dollars in improvements to the facility, following a consent decree with the federal government. Despite Motiva’s improvements and investments, a few months ago the plant had an upset.

MCMINN: We had an incident. We had a power failure is what happened. And what happens when you have a power failure is that you have to shut down whatever parts of the facility are affected.

DONDE: Losing power meant losing the steam that dilutes hazardous gases. So the plant had to release undiluted gases to avoid a buildup and explosion.

MCMINN: The wind direction took that smoke over into what’s called the El Vista neighborhood which is one of our neighboring communities over here.

DONDE: McMinn says that within thirty minutes of the upset, Motiva sent out a team of air monitors.

MCMINN: According to our monitors and according to screening levels there is no reason to be concerned. We did hold a community meeting in El Vista, and the reason we did that is that we don’t want people to have concerns or issues or fears and feel like they can’t talk to us about it. And we want people to be informed of what’s happening over here, because I think in many cases not having information is really when problems arise.

[SAMPLE BAG RATTLING]

DONDE: Hilton Kelley, though, has been out gathering his own information with gear he keeps in the trunk of his car.

[SOUND OF VACUUM MOTOR]

DONDE: Using a five-gallon plastic bucket with a vacuum-screw top, Kelley collects a sample in a clear Teflon bag. Activists call this the bucket brigade. It’s part of a national grassroots initiative, the Refinery Reform Campaign, to arm citizens with information.

Hilton Kelley takes his air sampling bucket out of the his car. (Photo: Deepa Donde)

[MOTOR SHUTS OFF]

DONDE: After he’s collected the sample, Kelley sends it to an independent laboratory in California.

KELLEY: Well, it finds out that there was a big release of benzene in that plume and it was right on this community. And I took the air samples, we got samples to prove it.

DONDE: Analysis of Kelley’s air sample showed levels of benzene that were not high, but were high enough, if sustained, to cause a greater incidence of cancers among residents. Tracey McMinn of Shell Oil stands by her results.

While some gulf coast companies, like Shell, have reduced emissions, others in Texas have been fined stiff penalties for increasing theirs. This May, the Texas attorney general fined Huntsman Petrochemical Corporation close to 9.5 million dollars for releasing more than sixteen million pounds of chemicals from its plant, a few miles from the fenceline. In a rare criminal trial, two of Huntsman’s plant managers were convicted of felonies for lying to the state and EPA. The two are appealing. But one thing is certain. More than thirty years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, many folks along the fenceline are still getting sick.

CURWOOD: Our story about air pollution and the community of Port Arthur, Texas continues in just a minute. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Much of the nation's gasoline, fertilizer and plastics is manufactured along the southern Gulf Coast. Producer Deepa Donde continues her report now on the Texas community of Port Arthur. The town borders six chemical plants, and it's not uncommon for even young people to face a range of diseases, from respiratory illness to cancer.

DONDE: A few miles from the refineries, close to the tracks that used to separate black from white Port Arthur, Hilton Kelley waves to a small thin man at the corner.

[SOUNDS OF CAR PULLING UP, DOG BARKING]

KELLEY: How are you doing?

DOMINIC: All right.

KELLEY: We are going to get out for a minute and meet and greet, then we’re going to take a tour. Mr. Dominic, this is Deepa.

DOMINIC: Wonderful, wonderful. Close that door.

DONDE: A veteran of World War II and Korea, Reverend Alfred Dominic still holds service on Sunday. He’s the pastor who inspired Hilton Kelley to advocate for clean air, and was one of Port Arthur’s first environmental activists.

DOMINIC: They would never tell us that pollution was here. That all of the Gulf and the Texaco and Atlantic Richfield, at that time, they would never tell us that they were polluting our air. And this is what’s so stifling to me. Why didn’t they tell us? Many of my friends have died with cancer. I am just one of the old dinosaurs and I’m still alive, my wife and I.

DONDE: Reverend Dominic’s concerns for clean air stretch back to Jim Crow times. And he says it gives him peace to pass the torch to Hilton.

DOMINIC: But thank God for this young man. He didn’t, he didn’t wait for nothing; he just got out there and started saying what he had to say. You see, I came up in an era from the 20s on now when they would not allow you to speak. If you would speak they would squash it out. But now, it’s coming to pass that people are speaking out regardless to who you are, what color you are, what country you are from. They are speaking out! And I praise the Lord for that.

[DOG BARKING, FOOTSTEPS]

DONDE: A few houses down lives 50-year-old John Dixon, a former refinery worker.

DIXON: That’s Snoop Dog – some friends of mine give him to me. That’s the name they gave to him, Snoop Dog. You can’t be interviewed so might as well rest.

KELLEY: Did the German shepherd ever have any puppies?

DIXON: Rest, Snoop. Rest. You’re not resting.

DONDE: A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on his living room wall. But before we have a chance to say much, a young woman walks in to return a fishing pole. She stands cautiously by the door, smoothing her hair.

DIXON: There is a young lady right there – I don’t know if she wants to discuss it, but you have a comment? We are on the subject of cancer and environment…hmmm.

KELLEY: Uterus, you got cancer in the uterus.

DIXON: In the uterus.

WILLIAMS: I just wake up every morning. I got two kids to live for. I have a two-year-old and I have a four-year-old. A four-year-old, a man. I can’t just lay down on my back and be like “oh well, I’m dying” or something. I just put it in God’s hands – whatever happens, happens. That’s why I don’t claim it all. Everybody has to go from something, so you know.

DONDE: Judy Williams is 21. You’d never know from her broad smile that this woman is a cancer survivor. She found out four years ago, a few weeks after she had her first baby. She thinks that there is something wrong with the air here. She can tell the difference when she drives into Houston, even though Houston has some of the worst air in the country.

WILLIAMS: The air is so different. I mean I’ll swear to living God. You pull into Houston, and it’s like “oh, I can breathe.” You know what I mean? When you get back home, it’s like oh my God, what happened? You can taste it, almost, when you hit the air. It’s like poisonous or something. I don’t know, it just has a real foul stitch taste. It’s in everything.

DONDE: Not a person I met here drinks the tap water. Everyone drinks either distilled or bottled water, including Judy.

WILLIAMS: Ah, yuck!

DONDE: You drink bottled water?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, bottled water.

DONDE: You drink bottled water.

WILLIAMS: Bottled water! Honey, you have no idea what’s in this water out here. I mean, people pollute…

DONDE: The mood suddenly shifts to more serious, as Hilton informs Judy about the latest and most forceful of the recent efforts to clean the air in Port Arthur: a class action lawsuit for damages against Premcor, Motiva, Chevron Phillips, Huntsman, BASF, and Atofina.

KELLEY: Because too many young people like yourself is dying from cancer. We just lost a 15-year-old last month, little girl. She had been living with brain tumors. She been having little small tumors all over her head, on the inside, on her brain. And she was going to Woodrow Wilson, and she died at this hospital in Houston, this treatment center for cancer in Houston. She died just last month.

WILLIAMS: Oh my God, who are you talking about?

KELLEY: She was 15 years old. She was 15 years old. She developed brain cancer and she died.

WILLIAMS: I know who you are speaking of.

CARMAN: In a way, you could describe Port Arthur as a kind of Bhopal in slow motion.

DONDE: Again, Neil Carman, president of the Lone Star Sierra Club.

CARMAN: People are being slowly and systematically poisoned on a daily basis. And while they may not die today or tomorrow from the insults – from the pollution – they will get cancers and leukemias and brain tumors and kidney failures and so forth from the pollution over the next 10, 15, 20 years.

DONDE: No one has ever conducted a comprehensive survey of Port Arthur’s air or associated health risks. A 1998 study conducted by the Texas Department of Health did show Port Arthur had levels of ozone, hydrogen sulfide, and benzene that suggested a “public health concern” and could pose a risk to the health of residents.

A local toxicologist recently conducted a symptom survey of residents in Port Arthur. More than 75 percent had ear/nose/throat problems, respiratory illnesses, muscle and bone diseases -- compared to less than a quarter of those in a control group in Galveston.

[HUMMING OF REFINERY]

DONDE: Our last stop is the home of Reverend Dominic’s daughter, Shaza Dominic Prince, a mother of three.

[SOUND OF DOOR OPENING, CLOSING]

DONDE: When I enter, the first thing I notice on her kitchen counter are dozens of medicine bottles and a neatly stacked pile of prescriptions. Next to it lies a portable breathing machine, the kind you see in hospitals.

PRINCE: You clean this out with a little vinegar. We just put this solution, it’s already pre-mixed so we don’t need to add anything to this one. Some of the solutions we have to add things…

[SOUND OF NEBULIZER]

DONDE: The nebulizer was a gift from her father to help her children cope with asthma attacks. Shaza herself suffers from chronic pain, earaches, and migraines. On average, she takes twenty pills a day to cope. And last year, the doctors told her she has a degenerative bone disease.

PRINCE: I think that the problem is stemming from a lot of the inhalation of different chemicals and whatnot that is causing it to deteriorate so fast. Now, it might have been caused by something else, I’m not saying the plant caused it, but I think the deterioration is caused by a lot of the chemicals I’m inhaling and digesting and whatever.

DONDE: Just then, Shaza’s oldest daughter Temisha walks in.

PRINCE: Look, she’s all clogged up now.

TEMISHA: I’m always sick, every day.

DONDE: Why?

TEMISHA: Huh?

DONDE: Your nose?

TEMISHA: Yeah, my sinus and congestion and everything. Well, it cleared up, but since I moved back here about a month ago I’ve been sick everyday.

DONDE: Temisha takes breathing treatments twice a day. Cullen, her 11-year old brother, stands quietly in the corner watching us closely, holding a basketball.

PRINCE: You wanna show her a couple of hoops? He wants to be a basketball star, I think his cousin was one…

DONDE: Cullen is the one that Shaza spends her time worrying about most, because his asthma is the worst in the family.

PRINCE: I mean, the first couple years of his life he didn’t even know what outside looked like, I don’t think. We couldn’t let him go out there because every time he went outside he got sick. You know, it’s ridiculous.

DONDE: But tonight is a good night. And Cullen’s doing what he loves best, playing basketball.

[BASKETBALL SOUNDS]

DONDE: There is a slight orange glow from the refinery across the street. They live at the last house on Foley, the closest to the fence line. Cullen’s five-year old cousin Mariah runs circles around him.

[CHEERING]

DONDE: Mariah’s wide smile and carefree skip touches anyone who nears her. Shaza whispers that the child came to live with her, a year ago, just after her mom died of uterine cancer at the age of twenty-one.

Shaza has signed her family onto the class action lawsuit filed against the six plants that border her property. But some environmental advocates don’t believe a lawsuit can solve all Port Arthur’s problems. A few have argued for relocation. That’s what happened in Norco, Louisiana, about 250 miles from Port Arthur. But many longtime residents like Shaza don’t want to relocate. She hopes that the refineries and petrochemical plants can simply do a better job.

PRINCE: I don’t want them to go away. Like I said, I have a brother that works right out there, out there, and he’s been working there forever. I want him to get his retirement out of it. I don’t want them to go away. I just want them to control their emissions so that we can live safely here. That’s what I want.

[SOUNDS OF FAMILY OUTSIDE]

DONDE: It’s nighttime now at the Dominic Prince residence. The children gather close to form a circle.

CULLEN: We want to pray for all the people here, Lord. We want to make sure they wake up tomorrow, Lord, and have another great day like today was. Forgive us for our sins and all the sins that other people have done. Amen.

DONDE: In Port Arthur, Texas, I’m Deepa Donde for Living on Earth.

[MUSIC]

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Precious Wonder

CURWOOD: Often we learn about rare animals from serious biologists who travel many miles and endure many hardships to research the creatures that fascinate them. But we can also get a keen sense of appreciation and wonder for nature's critters from someone who freely admits he knows next to nothing about science. Someone like producer Tom Lopez. Here’s his lesson about the frogs of the Pantanal.

[MEWLING FROG SOUNDS]

LOPEZ: I recorded these frogs in the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a floodplain or what I'd call a big swamp. It's mainly in Brazil but extends into Bolivia and Paraguay. They claim it's about 230,000 square kilometers. That's almost five times the size of Costa Rica. There's a lot of wildlife, especially at night, as you can hear. They sound like something from the planet Venus. I call them the singing frogs of the Pantanal. I think they're frogs.They could be toads.

Let me play you something else.

[OSCILLATING TOAD SOUNDS]

LOPEZ: They're what's known as your common garden toad. You'd never expect something with so many warts could sing like this. And listen to the way they all get together into these toad choruses, all twirling away. Reminds me of Moroccan women, the way they twirl.

We also have tree toads. They're tiny little green things about the size of your thumb. Amazing voices these little fellows have. You can tell it's a tree toad because you'll hear them up in the air above your head, twirling in some tree.

Meanwhile, back in the Pantanal – like I said, I don't know if these are frogs or if they're toads – but I'll tell you a story. There was a holy man. This is a true story, by the way, and it's a contemporary story. This contemporary holy man enjoyed going for walks in the woods, preferably alone. But living nearby was a university professor who loved to join the holy man on his walks. As they walked along, the professor would name everything. That tree belongs to whatever species, and that plant is such and such. That bush over there is so and so. That bird that just flew by is a whatever. The professor was a very informed man.

So, finally, the holy man said something that the professor never could quite get. The holy man said, "Drop your knowledge, knowledge is worthless. Wonder is precious."

[SOFT BLEETING FROG SOUNDS]

LOPEZ: Isn't this one of the most beautiful things you've ever heard?

[FROG SOUNDS]

LOPEZ: But still, I wonder, is it a frog or is it a toad?

[FROG SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: The singing frogs of the Pantanal was produced by Tom Lopez as part of the Hearing Voices series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

[MUSIC]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – about ten to 30 million species inhabit the earth, but science knows only a fraction of them. Now, biologist E.O. Wilson and others are calling for a concerted effort to find all creatures great and small.

WILSON: The science of biology will depend on, in the 21st century, a much closer examination of the diversity of life at the species level, and an all out effort to complete the mapping of life on earth.

CURWOOD: It’s “A Little Known Planet” – next week on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

[RUNNING WATER, CHIMING BELLS ]

CURWOOD: We leave you on a rocky shoreline along the south coast of France in a little village called Bormes-Les-Mimosas.

[PEALING CHURCH BELLS]

CURWOOD: Steven Feld set up his microphones there to record the noontime bells from two churches.

Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Paul Wabrek engineered our program with help from Nal Tero. Film sound courtesy of Slawomir Grunberg of Log TV. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

ANOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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