Person of the Week: Margie Richard

ByABC News
August 30, 2004, 2:37 PM

April 23 -- 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.