The nation lost a fiery environmental justice warrior on Saturday March 30, 2013 with the death of Emelda West, an 87-year old “take no prisoner” Marine Corps-type leader who became a hero to thousands of environmental justice activists around the country. She was the proud mother of seven children, nineteen grandchildren, and 24 great grandchildren.
A gentle churchgoer turned activist, Ms. West, a longtime Convent, Louisiana resident, was pressed into duty in her 70s and traveled around the world fighting for environmental justice for her mostly African American community and other disenfranchised communities across the globe. Her home, community, and environment were under siege from industrial polluters who would turn the strip along the Lower Mississippi River into a toxic “sacrifice zone.” From her home located on the winding River Road, she witnessed her community undergo a transformation from sugar cane plantations to one heavily dominated and devastated by the petrochemical industry.
Over the years, she heard dozens of companies moving into her community promise jobs to local residents. However, few community residents of Convent were hired. The plants are so close to residents' homes that people could actually walk to work. Ms. West helped found the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, a grassroots group that blocked the Shintech polyvinyl chloride plant from being located in Convent. With the assistance of Greenpeace she traveled all the way to Tokyo and met with company officials and stared them face-to-face and swore they would never locate in Convent. She was right. And thanks to her hard work and persistence, Shintech never became an unwelcome neighbor in Convent.
She argued forcefully that the EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality should provide equal protection for all Americans—black or white, rich or poor, rural or urban. She had witnessed too much injustice in her long life to stay quiet. Ms. West on many occasions would admit she is not an environmental scientist. However, she also was quick to tell you she can add and can see real good with her glasses and that if common sense was followed, many of the environmental injustices would not exist. Saturating poor communities of color with pollution doesn’t’ add up in anybody’s book—whether you have a Ph.D. or no degree. Until the very end, she vowed to fight injustice and environmental racism.
Ms. West loved to talk. And people listened. She was a longtime Community Advisory Board member of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University and has spoken at many national and international hearings, conferences and summits. Her story has been told in media outlets around the world, including Essence Magazine, New York Times, Dutch, French, German and Japanese press. She is on the cover of the Dumping in Dixie book. In 2001, her story was featured in Taking Back Our Town, a Lifetime TV move. In 2002, she was one of twelve women honored at the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit . In 2004, she was featured in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis exhibit “Exploring the Legacy." Ms. West will be greatly missed. Her legacy will live forever.