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"We Had to Do Something" 

Women pioneers of the state environmental movement tell their stories of getting angry, getting involved, and sometimes getting results.

Editor's note: In 1982, Calcasieu Parish resident Peggy Frankland first became involved in the state environmental movement, serving as a board member and citizen representative on numerous local and national committees and task forces and as president of Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN) in Lake Charles. In 1999, she enlisted Louisiana State University's T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History and began interviewing 40 women pioneers of the state environmental movement. Aided by a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, she plans to publish all 40 interviews in the forthcoming book Do Not Tear Up My Earth: Documenting Women's Voices in Louisiana's Grassroots Environmental Movement, 1970 -1990.

In the 1970s, Louisiana began a concerted and successful effort to attract industry by offering tax breaks to corporations willing to build chemical plants in the state. Most of the companies that accepted the state's offer built facilities in poorer, largely African-American communities. For decades, critics charge, plant refineries polluted the air, pumped chemicals into waterways, and built toxic waste dumps with impunity. Many communities located near these facilities began suffering high rates of cancer, miscarriages, birth defects and other diseases.

In the mid-1970s, as the environmental movement began to take hold across the nation, these high rates of illnesses spurred local residents into action. Grassroots organizations, mostly headed by women, sprang up throughout Louisiana. Community action groups spoke to public officials, testified at hearings, conducted health impact studies and filed lawsuits. Although they enjoyed some successes, these women were often discounted by state and local governments and by industry. Opponents often labeled the movement's leaders as hysterical housewives, wackos and barefoot epidemiologists. Some accused them of being anti-business and harming the state's economy. Meanwhile, Louisiana activists were becoming part of the environmental vanguard. "Louisiana to the environmental movement is like Selma, Alabama, to the civil rights movement," journalist Bill Moyers has said.

Why did so many women take the lead? Many turned to activism when they became alarmed about immediate threats to their children's health. Other factors included more flexible work schedules. Whatever the reasons, these activists both invigorated local communities and took their issues to the national stage. Shirley Goldsmith, head of the Lake Charles organization Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now, testified before Congress about ocean incineration. Wilma Subra, a chemist with her own consulting firm, has served on several national environmental task forces. She was awarded the MacArthur Genius award in 1999, as was Lorna Bourg, another state environmental activist.

The following oral histories, excerpted from 300 total hours of interviews, reveal both the individual efforts of activists and the common bonds formed when Louisiana women began to fight to live in a safer and cleaner state.

Mildred Fossier, New Orleans

In the 1970s, Mildred Fossier worked for Mayor Moon Landrieu as head of the Parkway and Park Commission and fought successfully to save threatened trees along South Carrollton Avenue. As Mayor Sidney Barthelemy's volunteer environmental consultant, she played a key role in creating and preserving Bayou Sauvage National Refuge, a tract of land that some public officials thought would be better utilized as an airport. She also participated in saving the wilderness area of Joe Brown Park -- even though the City Planning Commission wanted to use part of the area to create a football field. Fossier also helped preserve the immense tract of wilderness that is now the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. This summer, the Southeast Louisiana Refuges dedicated a bike path at Bayou Sauvage to Fossier, who is now 90 years old and remains active in the movement.

"They are too threatening -- the women are. And I think the environment is a place for women. It is a place because I think women can take flack without fisticuffs, or spend their time on individual duels and stick to what they believe.

"I think it's almost normal for a woman to be in the environmental movement, but it's almost abnormal for a man because he's going against his sex. It is not women polluting the skies and the water. Women couldn't do it because they were not in power to do it. But women are threatening. The powerful ones fear maybe that they won't make as much money next year, and they don't like criticism. This is a male thing. They also call women hysterical, but they have been doing this for years. After all, women scream when they're giving birth.

"As superintendent of the Parkway and Park Commission, I was very concerned about what was happening to the trees on South Carrollton Avenue. I fought the city departments, particularly Sewerage and Water Board, Streets, Entergy Corporation and others. They would run things as close to the tree as they could and cut off the roots of the tree. There was no reason to do that, because these oak trees particularly have shallow roots. You know they are only 18 inches under the soil and all the [workmen] had to do was lift the roots, keep them moist. It didn't impede their work at all. It might take ten minutes more to do it the right way.

"The Street Department did something awful and I was complaining very vocally and I didn't give a damn whether they liked it or they didn't like it. It was my job because Moon told me when he sent me to Parkway, 'Go out and protect every inch of city property and every tree.' So I did it, and it was my job. And the guy who was head of Streets said, 'You know, you're just like these little old ladies in white tennis shoes. You're just a bird brain.' I said, 'Oh! There's song up there, there's birth, there's life, and there's love. And what have you got? Cement.' So they called him cement brain and me bird brain." -- Interviewed by Jennifer Abraham

Helen Solar and Miriam Price, Morgan City
Photo by Jennifer Abraham

In the 1990s, Helen Solar and Miriam Price's grandchild was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an extremely rare form of cancer. They live in St. Mary Parish, which has a population of 60,000 people; their grandchild was one of five children diagnosed. The two women joined forces with five other women in their community to stop a commercial hazardous waste incinerator from operating in Morgan City. Ten years later, in October 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the facility, Marine Shale, to be cleaned and closed.

Helen Solar (maternal grandmother): "I had a precious grandchild and her name was Nicole. She was two years old when a friend of ours' child was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

"We were all devastated by it, and one day I was talking to the grandmother of that child and I asked her, 'How did you find it and what happened?' She told me that they found a tumor on her grandchild's back.

"I went to my daughter's house and I said that I wanted to check Nicole and make sure everything was all right. And God help us, I found a lump or protrusion on Nicole's back. My husband was on the boat at the time and I called him and told him that the local surgeon said that the lump was just a fatty tissue tumor and to just watch it. My husband called back and he said, 'You tell the doctor that I want Nicole to see someone else.'

"They were just going to watch it here, but we went for X-rays at Ochsner. We were sitting in the waiting room and everybody had told us that it was a fatty tumor, so we were really not too concerned. In fact, we were discussing what we were going to eat after the appointment.

"They were taking so long and the next thing, here comes my daughter and you can tell from her face that she was devastated. They found out that it was a tumor and it was the size of a Nerf football. It was 13 centimeters and I couldn't believe this could possibly be growing in this child and we did not even know it. How could it be?

"The doctor put her right into the hospital. He asked us, 'What is near you? What is there in your town that could be causing this?' Honestly, I had never, ever thought about it. I did not know Marine Shale existed. I did not know these things happened. I told him that I really did not know. He said, 'We have a very bad problem here. We have two children from the same town with a very rare form of cancer, which is unusual because it usually occurs in one in 100,000 people, and here you are in your community with two.'

"We went home devastated. We started investigating and after checking we came up with five children that had neuroblastoma within St. Mary Parish. This is a very small area.

"When we started we were very naive to anything like this. I thought our government took care of us and would not allow this to happen. What about their own children? What about their own lives? I did not even know what Marine Shale was but we found out a lot of disturbing things. With my level of education there were a lot of things that I did not understand, but I do know what they were doing was wrong. I am not technical, but it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out a lot of things that I have discovered on my own. In the end, it affected my grandchild. She was one of the only children that they could never really say that it was not tied into [Marine Shale] when she was diagnosed with cancer."

Miriam Price (fraternal grandmother): "My involvement started the time that my granddaughter took sick with cancer. That is when I really became aware of the environment, because the doctors were so insistent on the fact that it possibly could be some kind of contamination that had caused her cancer.

"Helen was with her at the time she discovered the lump in her back. She came and asked me what I thought. I really did not think there was very much to it. I thought it was like maybe a fatty tumor or something.

"We decided to have her checked and within two weeks she was diagnosed with cancer. Of course, the first thing they asked us was, 'Do the kids play on a hazardous waste dump over there in Morgan City?' Nicole was the fifth child to be diagnosed with the same type of cancer. Most of the other children were being treated at Ochsner, so they knew. It is not normal to find that many children with cancer in a small community like we live in. We should have .04, if any.

"In the middle to late '80s, I thought it (Marine Shale) was a shell processing plant. I thought they had reopened the plant to crush shells again. I never realized it was there to incinerate waste. Coming back fighting Nicole's illness, and coming back home to find the cause, to me, the most obvious and the most blatant violator of environmental law was Marine Shale at the time.

"Being a wife and a mother and staying home, I never thought that I had much to contribute to anything and never thought my opinion mattered to anybody, but when Nicole took sick, I got really angry. I think the anger and I guess the pain of seeing her suffer motivated me even more.

"It was her plight, I think, that drove me to do the things that I never thought I would do -- like getting up at a public hearing in Baton Rouge to speak, and going to places I never wanted to go in the first place. And I never thought I would see the day when I would agree to lay down on Highway U.S. 90 to stop the trucks from coming, but I was almost desperate if that was what it would take to close the plant.

"Nicole was like a poster child for everything that was right about what we did. She got the sympathy from people that were looking to make people understand what was happening to these kids. I mean, three of them were buried in the cemetery here.

"What I didn't really think was how corrupt the process of awarding permits was. I thought everything went by the law, and I thought the law was made to protect the people. I had this perception that not just God, but the people elected were going to take care of us as well. It was a rude awakening for me when I learned that is not exactly how politics is played today. In the end, I realized we were responsible for ourselves.

"I spent time trying to save Nicole in the hospital, and I spent time in Baton Rouge trying to close a plant. There were times when I was torn between the two. God is my witness I would have given anything to save Nicole. We did get the plant closed but that was no consolation to me. I would rather have saved Nicole, but it did not end up like that. She lived long enough to see the plant closed and I was glad of that." -- Interviewed by Peggy Frankland and Jennifer Abraham

Debra Ramirez, Lake Charles

In the 1980s, Debra Ramirez started an environmental organization in her area when she learned that the groundwater in the Mossville community was contaminated by toxic chemicals produced by two plants located adjacent to a small African-American settlement. In the late 1980s, the groundwater was discovered to be contaminated with ethylene dichloride (EDC). Unlike the Mossville community, the nearby Westlake community, which is predominantly white, had a warning system to alert residents of a chemical release or accident.

"There was a coke plant there. My mom went to the doctor and he asked her if she smoked. She didn't smoke, but she had the stuff in her lungs. He also asked her about respiratory problems. We had been having problems with the plant early on -- when they would have a chemical release. We did not have an alarm, but the whistle would go off and the police would come in. They would tell us to hurry up and get out. We ran! They did not give us a ride. We had to run for our lives. Now that I know better, we didn't run far enough.

"Sometimes we were in our sleeping clothes and barefoot. We were running on Old Spanish Trail. They had alligators in there and they had water moccasins crossing the road. Don't forget, we are talking about swampland. We would run to the corner of the old Trousdale Road, and we would stand there and wait for the all clear for us to go home.

"When we would go back home, we got to the point where we were sleeping in our clothes. That way, if the plant exploded, we would not be caught with our sleeping clothes on. Little girls had nightgowns sometimes that were thin and we did not even have time to grab a housecoat. When we would get back home and we had to go to school the next morning, sometimes we would be very tired. It was always a constant struggle.

"I don't think my parents knew the danger associated with the chemical plants. We never really knew what they had in them. And there was never any awareness that people would cause other folks harm enough to make them die. We just thought folks got old and died, or some misfortune happened to them. And don't forget, black people did not have a set place to go. They could not go and move anywhere in the parish that they wanted to live in. They could not do that in those days and times. So, eventually, industry moved toward us."



Ruth Shepherd, Sulphur

A grandmother and homemaker, Ruth Shepherd was a founding member and secretary of one of the first environmental groups formed in Louisiana in the late 1970s. Called the High Hope Committee, the group came together in an effort to unite the African Americans and the few white citizens who lived near a commercial hazardous waste landfill in Willow Springs. In an effort to build unity between the black and white communities, Shepherd and another white activist joined the local NAACP -- an unusual move for a white woman in rural Louisiana in the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, pressure from Shepherd and other activists led to the closing and covering of the landfill.

 

"In June 1977, I had acquired a 1945 Army Jeep. My son Bob and I were riding in the jeep on Willow Springs Road in a community I had never been in before, even though it was only two and a half miles from my home. I did not know this small community existed. It was a narrow dirt road and we drove to the river. It was pretty back there and it was fascinating to me because it was new territory for me to explore.

"Returning home from the river, we encountered two or three tank trucks on the dirt road. I told my son that I wondered what tank trucks were doing on the road. We turned around and followed them to see where they were going. They turned off onto a narrow road that was hidden in the trees. We followed them, and I saw them take a hose off the back of their truck and dump its contents into a big pit there. The odor was terrible, and I knew immediately what was going on.

"The next day, I went back to the same area and parked on a side road near the entrance of the area where they had dumped their trucks the day before, and I started counting the trucks going in and out. They averaged one truck per hour. I talked to some of the neighbors in the area, especially to Herbert Rigmaiden, who lived on a farm across the road from where they were dumping. I found out that this had been going on for a long time. I came home and called the president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and he told me there was nothing he could do and suggested that I contact the Louisiana Department of Health, which I did, and they did not give me any information at all.

"I discovered there were no laws governing the dumping of hazardous waste in the state of Louisiana. I contacted Mike Tritico, a local environmentalist whom I had read about in the local newspaper. Together we called a meeting of the residents of the Willow Springs community.

"We had our first meeting at the Willow Springs Baptist Church in April 1978. About 200 people attended the meeting. The next day following the meeting, someone from the company that owned the facility called on the pastor of the church and donated 200 dollars. They reached an agreement that we could not use their church for a meeting place any longer."


Marylee Orr, Baton Rouge

In 1985, Marylee Orr started the environmental organization Mothers Against Toxic Pollution and became the co-chair of the newly formed state environmental group Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). In 1987, she became LEAN's executive director; the organization has grown from representing six environmental groups to a hundred. She conducts a statewide leadership conference annually, bringing in such noted speakers as Robert Kennedy Jr. to inspire and empower Louisiana's leaders.

"When I started, and even still, I think I have to work against the stigma of being against things, anti-economic development. At the beginning people called me a communist. And they called me a pinko. They also said I was an ice princess, a witch with a "b" and that I was against jobs. They even put a picture of me in a plant with a red circle and a slash through it. I had at the time union members in our organization, and the union member actually told me about it.

"I have been called all of that and worse to my face and behind my back. I used to say that I think I am the most conservative person. I can remember Liz Avants and LeAnn Kirkland, and all the other ladies saying the same thing. We are really very conservative. We just want to have clean air, clean land and clean water. We want to have something to give to our kids and I think those are very conservative values. But they want to make it out like it's some radical concept.

"So I found if we ladies get up and say so and so is a problem, you know what? 'That lady is crazy.' They try to ostracize us from each other and they don't want us to talk to each other. It is a way of building a wall between us in our communities and between each other too.

"And conservation and environmental issues, I think, have certainly come together in a better marriage than it used to be. It used to be the conservationists were the ones, I would call the 'hook and bullet' boys, and the hunters and fisherman sort of saw the environmental community as a threat and sort of had different goals. But I think through our work, the women's work, the communities' work, and building bridges, I think that they see that we are on the same track and that we really want the same thing, which is clean air, clean water. It has taken years and years of building those bridges to make people feel more trusting.

"We've come a long way. Because we've gone from the 1980s where people sort of saw me -- or us as a community -- as sort of someone who is an outside agitator to the mainstream. If you look at the polls, one of the number one concerns, with crime, is the environment. People want to have a healthy place to send their children to school or to play or to recreate.

"Chernobyl and Bhopal and catastrophic environmental events, I am sorry to say, have awakened people. And I think people in this new millennium are tired of hearing bad things about us. We're great people. We have a lot of natural resources and we haven't been smart about what we've done with them, and I think people are more willing to stand up about it.

"And the stereotype of the environmental person is not the same, either. I use to laugh and say, 'You know, they think we're like this yogurt-eating, backpacking, bearded, sandeled Birkenstock people,' which are wonderful, there are people like that in our community, but there are also doctors, lawyers, workers, and grandmas and grandpas. These women are making history, and they are making choices in their houses, or in a meeting hall, or wherever they are. They are going to change the history of their community." -- Interviewed by Peggy Frankland and Jennifer Abraham

Clara Baudoin, Carencro

In the early 1980s, Clara Baudoin lobbied successfully to close the North Dugas commercial solid waste landfill owned by the City of Lafayette. She helped revise the solid waste regulations of the state of Louisiana, and she was appointed to the Louisiana Resource Recovery Development Authority board, which had to give approval to all landfills in the state of Louisiana. She ran for state representative of District 39 on an environmental platform and is now serving her second term.

"In 1979, adjacent to my daddy's farm and where we lived, the City of Lafayette purchased property for a municipal solid waste landfill -- a sanitary landfill is what they were calling it. A sanitary landfill was still a dump, but it was just a new name for open dumps. This was going to be a state-of-the-art facility. We were given reassurances that we would not know it was there.

"I got extremely concerned about the groundwater because our water well was 110 feet, which was the maximum depth of the wells in that area. The City of Lafayette was digging big holes and putting everything in those big holes. Common sense will tell you that anything that goes in that big hole will decay and form a fluid. I was concerned that the leachate would enter our groundwater -- the water we had to drink.

"We had our fears but did not know exactly what to do or what could be done, if anything. The City of Lafayette opened the landfill in early 1980. It was not very long after that when we found out that we had more fears than just the water, and we were going to have to tolerate a lot more than we ever thought about, because the odor soon became unbearable. We were faced with flies, rodents and stray dogs.

"I had a lot of things to learn because I did not know what I was dealing with. I just knew that something had to be done because you could not live the way we were trying to live. It was especially hard seeing my mother no longer able to sit on her front porch because the odor and the flies were so bad at her house. On certain days she was nauseated and actually got sick from the odors. You could not tolerate the odors. You could not mow the yard without having to swat the flies away. It was a nightmare. And here we were calling the facility a sanitary landfill.

"A lot of things went wrong and I started attending City Council meetings and asking questions. I tried to talk to anybody that I could, saying, 'We have to do things better. We have got to change things.'

"After several years of going to everybody that I could and getting no relief, we decided to do something else. By then I was getting really educated in garbage and solid waste. When we were unable to get relief from anywhere, we ended up attending one final City Council meeting, where I again asked for assistance. I was told they were doing the best they could. I left that night and I cried. My husband was with me and I cried all the way home. I cried from being hurt, from being mad, but mostly from knowing that he was telling me that they were doing the best that they could and we were faced with living the rest of our lives under those conditions.

"That night I decided I had cried and that was it. I was hurt, but now I was going to do what I had to do. Now I was on a mission, and somebody, somewhere, was going to listen.

"I had never seen the inside of a courtroom. I had never had an attorney, but I knew I had to do something. I decided to sue the City of Lafayette, because you do not do this to people.

"Certainly, that was not an easy decision and it came after a lot of thought. My husband had been employed by the City of Lafayette for 18 years, and I had relatives employed by the City of Lafayette, so it was not an easy decision. I feared for my husband's job. We had insurance and benefits that we were putting on the line and I didn't know what they were going to do. They might have fired him the next morning.

"I knew what they were doing was wrong and when you know something is wrong, you do whatever it takes and you have got to put the effort into making it right. I did not know what I was suing for but I knew I wanted better conditions. I was not interested in money or anything else that might come out of the lawsuit. I wanted to make it better for the people who lived around the site. A lot of people would talk to me and tell me that I could not beat City Hall.

"We had a small savings account and it did not take me very long to find out how quickly that goes away. I spent everything on experts and appraisers, trying to get what was needed to go to court. It was not easy, and I sacrificed a lot. I learned you do not just file a lawsuit and go to court right away. We had quite a bit of time to worry and wait to see if Joe (Clara's husband) would get fired or what would happen. They didn't fire him and we won the lawsuit. We went to the District Court, the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court, and we won in all three.

"Even though we won in all three courts, I quickly found out that the judgments against the City of Lafayette did not mean a lot because you cannot seize public property. My attorney explained to me that we could not force the city to pay these judgments. And the only thing we could do was meet with the governor in order to get the funds that go to the City of Lafayette frozen and put into escrow until the judgments were paid. He said there was no need to go before the Legislature if the governor was going to veto the measure.

"He made arrangements to meet with Governor Edwin Edwards. We met him at the Governor's Mansion. I will never forget -- the governor sat there and he had blue jeans on. I had never met a governor, so it was quite an experience for me. He agreed not to veto legislation if it got to his desk. The City of Lafayette agreed to pay the judgments but without interest.

"When I took the battle on, I had no idea it would be that tremendous. I just thought that somebody would listen and make it right. And in the beginning, it was partly true that I got involved to protect my family and neighbors. However, in a short time it was more than that, when I realized what the contamination of the whole aquifer would affect. Then the issue went beyond only my family. I wanted that landfill cleaned up, straightened up or closed, and I was not going to stop until something happened.

"I learned that not only can you fight the battle, you can win the war. You can win and beat City Hall."

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