Even as her family and neighbors fell sick and died, Margie Richard couldn't help thinking that those responsible would do the right thing if only they knew. The trouble was, they didn't want to listen. So the retired Louisiana schoolteacher took matters into her own hands, leading a lengthy battle against the pair of Shell petrochemical plants that bookend the African American community in Norco, a small town upriver of New Orleans amid the toxic skein of industry dubbed Cancer Alley. Shell wasn't just a health menace; it was the town's main employer, and community support largely broke along racial lines. But with a steely mix of faith and ingenuity, Richard, 64, convinced the petroleum giant both to clean up its act and to pay each homeowner in a four-block area of the plant a minimum of $80,000 to buy a house elsewhere—an offer everyone accepted. She set up a webcam to broadcast illegal venting of toxic chemicals from the plant, installed her own atmospheric monitors, and even traveled to Shell headquarters in the Netherlands to invite company executives to take a whiff of Norco's air for themselves. In the end, the company agreed to invest more than $20 million in emission reduction and relocation—a historic victory for so-called fence-line communities living with industry. In 2004 Richard became the first African American to win the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. "I get accused a lot of talking too much, but if you don't tell people the problem, how can you expect them to solve it?" she says. Indeed.
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