We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The People's Scientist

Wilma Subra helps vulnerable communities document the health toll of industrial pollution.

By Linda Marsa
Oct 1, 2015 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:17 AM
Wilma Subra collects air quality data at a park in the Diamond district of Norco, La., bordered by a Hexion chemical plant. | William Widmer/Redux


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The contrast couldn’t be more stark: Only a chain-link fence, camouflaged by thick bushes and mighty oak trees, separates residents from a Shell chemical plant and the Motiva oil refinery. On one side is a verdant park, with a gazebo and a children’s slide, surrounded by a handful of small, tidy clapboard homes with well-tended lawns. On the other side is a huge industrial zone: low-slung concrete and corrugated buildings, and vast storage tanks connected by a maze of thick pipes. Smokestacks spew clouds of noxious chemicals.

This is the Diamond district of Norco, a Mississippi Delta hamlet about 25 miles west of New Orleans. It’s like a ghost town now — empty and quiet, even at midday. Tall grasses have overtaken open fields where homes once stood. This used to be a thriving African-American neighborhood of 1,500 with roots that go back more than 200 years. Today, it’s home only to a couple of dozen families.

Ever since Shell built the plant in the 1950s, locals who lived near the fence line complained of the acrid rotten-egg smell that permeated the neighborhood, and of the toll they believed toxic exposures took on their health — alarmingly high rates of asthma, uncommon cancers, rare autoimmune disorders and respiratory illnesses. There were frequent accidents and two fatal explosions, including one in 1988 that killed seven workers, injured 48 others and forced more than 4,000 area residents to evacuate.

Wilma Subra | William Widmer/Redux

Yet since the mid-1970s, Shell Oil had rebuffed residents’ demands to be relocated from the contaminated properties, and they even lost a 1997 lawsuit because they couldn’t convince a jury that plant emissions posed a health risk.

Then Wilma Subra stepped in — with a plastic paint bucket outfitted with a simple battery-operated pump to collect air samples — and provided residents with the clear evidence they needed.

Subra, a chemist and microbiologist who works gratis with poor communities to take on big corporations, held workshops at a local church to teach residents how to use the buckets to collect air samples and keep diaries so they could match their physical symptoms with what they smelled in the air. Then they’d compare those logs with the emissions that the company is required to report to state and federal agencies.

While this type of sampling is rudimentary, the bucket tests were more than what Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality had done; the regulatory agency relied mainly on Shell’s emissions data, which indicated that concentration levels of pollutants fell below the permitted state limits.

Subra’s analysis allowed community members to correlate their symptoms with the company’s reported emissions. They found they were being exposed to 100 to 1,000 times higher concentrations of benzene, toluene, methyl ethyl ketone and other toxic substances than people living in other areas of rural Louisiana. What’s more, their investigation detected releases that the plant hadn’t reported to state regulators.

“Wilma turned the tide just when we all felt like giving up,” says Margie Richard, a retired schoolteacher who headed the Concerned Citizens of Norco, a grass-roots group that battled Shell Oil. Armed with these findings, Richard and her fellow activists presented their results to anyone who would listen, including the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, where Richard gave a well-publicized speech in Geneva in 1999. Soon, environmental groups, the EPA and the media took notice. A chastened Shell worked with the activists to set up monitoring stations throughout the neighborhood. Soon after, the company paid $30 million to buy and raze 250 houses in the Diamond district and relocate many residents.

“They just wanted us to go away, but Wilma gave us the proof we needed to get justice,” says Richard, who now lives in nearby Destrehan.

A large petrochemical complex lines the western bank of the Mississippi River, across from the small town of Norco, La. | William Widmer/Redux

Subra’s missionary zeal hasn’t diminished over the years. At an age when most people are thinking about retirement, the 72-year-old scientist is involved in some of her biggest struggles yet, including getting justice for victims of the 2010 BP oil rig explosion and spill and blocking the construction of a plant in the town of Mossville in western Louisiana. “I was up at 3 a.m. reading my email, and I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’ ” Subra tells me on a sweltering September day over lunch at a downtown New Orleans hotel. “But these issues just keep going. And if you let frustration get in the way of being able to get something done, then somebody’s not going to get what they need from you.”

A Top Gun in Battle

Rural hamlets like Norco are familiar turf for Subra, who was born in 1943 and raised in Morgan City, about 70 miles southwest of Norco, near the marshy bayous and swamplands of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. She now lives nearby, in New Iberia, a city of about 30,000 on the banks of Bayou Teche, flanked by restored antebellum mansions and the tree-lined streets of a historic downtown. With her sweater sets, sensible shoes and blond hair pulled back in a tight bun, the soft-spoken grandmother looks more like a favorite high school teacher than a tree hugger.

A chemist by training and an environmental activist by avocation, Subra is a true original: “the people’s scientist,” says Michele Roberts, a scientist who is a national co-coordinator at the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform in Washington, D.C.

"They just wanted us to go away, but Wilma gave us the proof we needed to get justice."

Subra’s work in refinery communities like Norco exposes the racial and economic fault lines in rural America, where impoverished communities of color often become the dumping ground for our nation’s toxic wastes. In the past three decades, Subra has been involved in more than 800 grass-roots struggles across the nation, from groundwater contamination stemming from natural gas extraction in Texas, Wyoming and North Dakota to pollution from shipyards in the San Francisco Bay. Her free technical assistance has helped level the playing field for hundreds of poor towns battling corporate giants. Because of Subra’s efforts, thousands of residents — beset with health problems that stem from the collateral damage of industrialization, including groundwater contamination, pesticide misuse, oil field waste, toxic landfills and hazardous waste incinerators — have been armed with the tools to get a fair shake.

“She is the voice of greatness,” says Russel Honoré, the now-retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who became a local folk hero when he led search and rescue and evacuation after Hurricane Katrina and later founded the GreenARMY, a coalition of environmental groups fighting against pollution in the Gulf region. “She has the profound ability to communicate in language people can understand about the impacts of hazardous materials and the consequences of the actions of the petrochemical industry.”

But much of her work has centered on an 85-mile corridor along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where chemical plants and refineries pump out millions of pounds of toxic substances each year. Louisiana is ground zero for toxic dumping, she believes, because of lax enforcement in a state dominated by the petrochemical industry. “Because we’re so energy-intense, everything goes here,” Subra says. For example, a 2014 audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that the state’s cash-strapped Office of Conservation, which regulates the oil and gas industry, had failed to plug nearly 3,000 orphaned wells and hadn’t fined companies with well-inspection violations. The audit also found that the agency had failed to inspect more than half of Louisiana’s 50,000 oil and gas wells every three years as required by law.

Yet even industry executives consider her a worthy adversary. “She’s always been highly respected, courteous and professional,” says Dan Borné, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, an industry trade group. He describes Subra as one of the environmental movement’s “top guns.”

Subra has earned many accolades: a MacArthur “genius grant” and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award, among numerous others. She’s testified before Congress, lectured at Harvard, helped draft environmental laws and served on numerous governmental panels. “She is respected among scientists and companies across the board, which is a reflection of the methodical and thoughtful work that she does,” says David Gray, director of the office of external affairs for the EPA’s Region 6, based in Dallas. “Even when we disagree, she brings a healthy dialogue to the table about pretty complex issues.”

Unlikely Crusader

The Louisiana native didn’t start out as an environmental crusader. The daughter of an inventor, she learned technical skills — like doing chemical analysis — from the time she was in middle school, pitching in during the summer at her father’s company, which ground up oyster shells for use in paints, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The valedictorian of her high school class, Subra got her master’s degree in microbiology, chemistry and computer sciences from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. In 1967, she started work at the Gulf South Research Institute, a state-funded agency that did toxicology studies. Although the institute conducted mostly animal studies, dosing lab rats and mice with different agents that potentially cause cancer, researchers also tested blood and urine from people who were exposed to chemicals in the area. During her 14 years there, Subra grew frustrated that she couldn’t share her findings with residents because of the company’s confidentiality agreement. Test results were turned over to federal agencies like the EPA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which strictly regulated their distribution.

The turning point came in 1980, when her lab tested workers at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Lexington, Ky., where crates of ammo from Vietnam had been stored to be decommissioned. The employees, who were civilians from poor parts of Appalachia, took the wood crating home and used it to panel walls, build bookcases or burn in the fireplace.

"They'd be very sick, but they needed the job, so they'd go out the next morning. I was educating people all along the coast...talking about the chemicals they were being exposed to and how they needed protective gear."

“The wood had been soaked in so much pentachlorophenol that it was dripping out of the train cars,” says Subra, who adds that the EPA recently categorized the pesticide as a likely carcinogen. “We found it in the blood and urine of the workers, and it had also contaminated the air and the soil when they took it home. But we were never able to go back to the community and tell them what we had found. And these people had a right to know.”

In 1981, she founded the Subra Company, a consulting firm that conducts chemical analyses for food companies and provides free technical assistance to community groups. She spends most of her time giving advice to residents dealing with oil, chemical and hazardous waste spills and pollution, using her expertise to expose malfeasance by entrenched corporate interests without a second thought to her own personal safety. She’s been threatened, harassed, had her office burglarized and computers stolen — forcing her to move her office from a trailer near the four-lane blacktop highway that cuts through south Louisiana to a cozy file-filled cottage on her property across from sugar cane fields. She’s even been shot at — authorities never learned who fired the gun while Subra was working at a desk by her front window — but she takes it all in with remarkable equanimity.

Industrial Battlegrounds

Over 30 years, Wilma Subra’s reach has extended to more than 800 communities. Here are a few examples of issues she’s helped residents tackle:

Shale Oil Development Marcellus and Utica Shale – Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio Bakken Shale – North Dakota, Montana Fayetteville Shale – Arkansas Tuscaloosa Shale –Louisiana, Mississippi Permian Basin –Texas, New Mexico Woodford Shale – Oklahoma

Coal Bed Methane Powder River basin of Wyoming San Juan basin of New Mexico Colorado, Alaska, Alabama

Toxic Landfills Utah, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana

Polluted Shipyards San Francisco, Alabama, Louisiana

Industrial Toxic Air Emissions Louisville, Ky. New Jersey industrial corridor Humphreys County (Tenn.) Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Florida, California

Pesticide Misuse California Southern half of Louisiana

Injection Wells Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama

Vinyl Chloride Facilities Across the United States, as well as Japan and Israel

BP Oil Spill Impacts Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas 

In one of her earliest cases, in the early 1980s in Vermilion Parish, she got a call from a man whose wife and father were both dying of cancer. Since the area has about 55 waste sites, she analyzed the tap water from different private wells and discovered the presence of four heavy metals linked to oil field waste. After she revealed her findings to residents, the Louisiana health department warned her to stop telling people not to drink the water. The state was stuck. It knew there was a problem but didn’t have the dollars for cleanup — until its own investigation uncovered so much toxic waste in the groundwater that the EPA stepped in and declared three of the dozens of dumps as Superfund cleanup sites. This designation freed up federal money to deal with the contaminants. “We managed to keep a new waste site out,” Subra recalls. “Finally the industry people said, ‘OK, Wilma, enough, we’ll work with you to get some of them cleaned up voluntarily.’ ”

The Vermilion Parish experience set the pattern for the rest of her career: concerned residents with health problems, coupled with resistance from companies and local authorities. By the time the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and caught fire late in the evening on April 20, 2010 — killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others — it seemed like half of south Louisiana had her on speed dial. In the early morning hours after the blast, she fielded frantic phone calls from all over the coast. “All the families around here had no idea whether their loved ones were dead or alive or injured,” she recalls. “They were just desperate.”

The paperwork related to the explosion nearly fills an entire room in Subra’s cluttered offices. In what is perhaps the worst man-made environmental disaster in American history, the BP spill ultimately spewed 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf before the well was sealed. In addition, officials used 1.8 million gallons of the chemical dispersant Corexit to break up the oil. Subra, along with other scientists, believe that mixing such large quantities of dispersants with the millions of barrels of sweet crude unleashed a toxic brew that has sickened thousands of locals, including some of the 170,000 people who worked in some capacity on BP’s cleanup operation.

Crude oil itself contains heavy metals, benzene, hexane, toluene and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that can damage DNA, leading to leukemia and lymphomas, and destruction of parts of the brain that regulate memory and motor skills. Corexit and oil together are synergistic, according to Subra and other scientists. The dispersant acts like an oil delivery system, breaking down the crude so the toxic substances can seep through skin.

High winds hitting the 68,000-square-mile slick carried the mixture of crude and Corexit up to a hundred miles inland. Many fishermen and the frontline cleanup workers, including the boat captains and deckhands out in the Gulf, believe they were sickened by the aerial spraying of dispersants. At night they’d call Subra, who estimates she got 300 to 400 calls with the same complaints: dizziness, stinging eyes, severe headaches, nausea, respiratory ills. “They’d be very sick, but they needed the job, so they’d go out the next morning,” she says. “I was educating people all along the coast … talking about the chemicals they were being exposed to and how they needed protective gear.”

But EPA officials kept reassuring Subra that the dispersants weren’t sprayed during the day. Subra buttonholed Obama administration officials visiting the Gulf, including EPA director Lisa Jackson. She testified before Congress and teamed up with Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), to order protective gear and respirators. The workers had the gear by early May but were told they would be fired if they wore them because it wouldn’t look good for the TV cameras; BP denies ever doing this. “Over the long haul,” says Subra, “we were never successful in getting the workers to be able to wear the gear.”

In the five years since the spill, Subra believes not nearly enough has been done to address the health consequences faced by the cleanup workers, their families and thousands of Gulf Coast residents. Many report remarkably similar symptoms, such as nausea, difficulty breathing, memory lapses, liver damage, seizures, hypertension, blood in the urine and rectal bleeding, and some suffer from profound depression and anxiety. BP agreed to a settlement in 2012 that will compensate victims up to $60,700 per person (separate from the $18.7 billion environmental fine the oil giant agreed to pay in July 2015). But Subra doesn’t think this is adequate for people whose lives have been permanently derailed.

“We have tons of workers who have lost their house, have lost their vehicles, with no way of supporting their family and are too sick to go to any kind of job,” says Subra. “This includes women, too, who were hired to cook for the workers on the boats, and who washed the clothes that were just dripping with chemicals. They’re being ignored.”

Fighting for Decades

Subra knows how the fights can go on for decades. Take Mossville, a predominately African-American community in western Louisiana that has the state’s densest concentration of industrial facilities. There are 14 industrial companies in the area, and many manufacture vinyl chloride, which produces dioxins, a group of chemicals that accumulate in the food chain and are classified as carcinogens. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted blood tests in 2006 that revealed residents’ blood dioxin levels were three times the national average. But it wasn’t until Subra compared the raw data from the study with the EPA’s inventory of dioxin emissions from Mossville facilities that residents could show a direct correlation between the dioxins in their blood and those emitted by the plants. Still, nothing happened.

By 2012, the community faced yet another industrial site. The South African chemical and oil giant Sasol wanted a permit to build the first U.S. facility that converts natural gas into diesel fuel — the largest industrial project in the state’s history. In a series of hearings, Subra presented her findings on the area’s pollution levels, and she was accompanied by a parade of ill residents. But the state environmental quality agency approved the request.

After meetings with activists, Sasol offered home buyouts (more than 80 percent of locals have signed up) and scholarships for training programs that target underemployed residents. The company is also working with the Imperial Calcasieu Museum to collect oral histories of the region. “We’re trying to be responsive to the needs of the community,” says Michael Hayes, Sasol’s manager of public affairs. But Subra believes it will essentially spell the end of this centuries-old town. “They just received their wetlands permits, so it’s a go,” she says sourly. “But Mossville is dying because they’ve ripped the social fabric apart.”

Yet she remains undaunted. There is always another case, and another phone call from someone who needs her help. “There’s just so much to do,” says Subra. “If we’re not there as a pushback, then they’re going to just run over us and destroy the environment and all human health in the name of economic development.”

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.