Person of the Week: Margie Richard

ByPeter Jennings

April 23, 2004 -- Margie Richard is a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher from Norco, La. — a poor town along the Mississippi River — where for many years, she and her neighbors had lived next to a Shell Oil chemical plant.

Richard believed, as did others, that Shell's plant emissions were making them sick.

"When I saw many people getting sick, it was like a light went off in my inner spirit," she said. "It made me pray more to say that something must be done, and there was a song that was birthed within my heart: 'If you can use anything, Lord, you can use me.' "

She added: "I stood on my front yard one day, and I looked across at the plant, and I saw the steam, and I saw everything. And within my heart I said, 'Oh God, no one should live this close.' "

Richard's sister died from a respiratory disease, and one day while playing outside, her own daughter suffered a collapsed lung.

Shell said scientific research proved its plant was operating safely. But Richard didn't believe them.

"If something isn't done, we'll just sit by and watch people die. And I knew that something had to be done," she said.

Grass-Roots Organizing

In the late 1980s, following an explosion at one of the plant's facilities, Richard began to organize her neighbors.

"At night it comes out, 6:30 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," she said during one of her rallies.

The neighborhood rallies attracted attention. Soon volunteer scientists taught residents how to test the quality of the air. The scientists discovered the pollution levels were high.

"If you don't know something, then you educate yourself on it, so therefore I learned. I learned the acronyms, I learned about emissions, I learned," Richard said.

Time and again the neighborhood told Shell of their fears, but the company insisted the air was safe. "I was accused of being crazy," said Richard. "I was accused of many things, so the door was not open at first to be heard in a way that I wanted to be, and that is with respect."

An environmental group paid for Richard to travel to the Netherlands, where she confronted Shell executives at a conference.

"Are you going to be true to what you say on paper about cleaner air and being fair and a good neighbor?" Richard asked company executives during their meeting.

Company Takes Notice

After 13 years, Richard said, Shell began to listen to her concerns.

"I knew that God had somebody there with a heart who would listen and who would, in turn, bring it to the attention of those locally that we needed to be taken care of in a proper way."

Shell has since offered to buy all the homes in the neighborhood closest to the plant, allowing people to move away if they chose. The company said it has reduced the emissions at the plant by 30 percent, as well.

Richard won the Goldman Prize this week for her grass-roots-level work to make life better for her family and neighbors.

Shell even congratulated Richard for winning the environmental prize, but the company has continued to deny any wrongdoing.

For Richard though, it is a victory. When she was honored, she said thank you in a way that apparently seemed most natural to her.

She sang the chorus to one of her favorite church hymns: "To God be the glory, to God be the glory."

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