Every year, many Americans young and old get sick because of air pollution. Thousands die. But our lungs don't have to be the dumping ground for dirty industries. Clean air should be a fundamental right.
Port Arthur, Texas is home to a high density of oil refineries, chemical plants and hazardous waste facilities that have made the Gulf Coast city one of the most polluted in America. Asthma and cancer rates in the largely African-American neighborhood known as West Side—which sits at the fenceline of Port Arthur's heavy industry—are among the highest in the state.
But thankfully, Port Arthur is also home to Hilton Kelley, a force-of-nature environmental justice advocate whose tireless efforts in his community have reduced the toxic burden that he and his neighbors bear. Kelley's inspirational work earned him a 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize, which every year goes to six outstanding grassroots environmental heroes (one from every inhabited continent). Mr. Kelley, alongside the five other recipients, will receive the North American award at a ceremony in San Francisco later today.
The 50-year-old Kelley was born in Port Arthur but left in 1979 to pursue a career as a stuntman and actor in television and film. On a visit home in 2000, Kelley was shocked by the decline his hometown was experiencing—though Port Arthur had faced poverty and air pollution in his youth, the prevalence of cancer and respiratory illness, crime and economic hardship he saw was devastating. Resolved to help his community, Kelley returned home and learned all he could about industrial air pollution—and how to stop it.
Kelley monitored local air quality by collecting air samples during events when dramatically high amounts of toxic pollution were released from the local facilities: lightning strikes, human errors and when the facilities started up or shut down their operations. He started a community organization called Community In-power and Development Association (CIDA) and educated many local residents in air monitoring as well.
Part of Kelley's savvy is a recognition that industrial operations in Port Arthur are a fact of life. He has found concrete ways to help his community that have translated into real victories for the community. When Motiva Enterprises announced plans to upgrade its Port Arthur operation to the largest petrochemical plant in the nation, Kelley launched a successful campaign to ensure the upgrade wouldn't saddle West Side residents with more toxic pollution. He negotiated a "good neighbor" agreement with Motiva that mandated the use of state-of-the-art pollution controls and secured $3.5 million to help launch new businesses in Port Arthur.
And soon after, he led the community in a campaign that prevented the Veolia Corporation from importing 20,000 tons of PCBs—an extremely toxic organic compound that was banned in the U.S. in 1979—that would have been burned in a local incinerator. Kelley's advocacy and leadership in the Port Arthur community have also attracted the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Port Arthur was selected by the EPA as an Environmental Justice Showcase Community and awarded $100,000 over the next two years to help improve the health challenges faced by the community.
Through CIDA, Kelley is currently pressing for the implementation of a Community Warning Siren that will alert residents when toxic spills occur in the area.
Mr. Kelley's leadership is an inspiration. Congratulations for this much-deserved honor.
Hilton Kelley at an EPA public hearing in Houston, TX. June 2010. Photo by Raviya Ismail/Earthjustice