Using His Voice for Clean Air

Port Arthur, TX residents continually exposed to toxic emissions

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When Hilton Kelley of Port Arthur, Texas moved back to his hometown more than a decade ago, he didn’t realize that he’d spend the ensuing years battling for clean air. And on a muggy Tuesday afternoon, he drove 90 miles west toward Houston to attend yet another EPA hearing to comment on air pollution rules.

Kelley, 49, lives in an area where there are 20 facilities, small and large, continuously pumping chemicals into the air.

"We have become the dumping ground for America’s toxic waste," said Kelley. The Port Arthur community is comprised of residents that often times need two or three jobs to make ends meet, he said. "It’s an area of least resistance."

In April, the EPA proposed rules to control air pollution from industrial boilers and process heaters. If finalized, these air pollution rules would reduce emissions by 15,000 pounds of mercury, 722 grams of dioxin (the most potent carcinogen), 37,000 tons of hydrogen chloride, 50,000 tons of particulate matter and 340,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year.

Boilers—which are commonly found at chemical plants, oil refineries, shopping malls, and universities—burn coal, oil, natural gas and other materials and are used to provide electricity and heat to a facility. Process heaters heat raw or intermediate materials during an industrial process—for example, crude oil is heated at oil refineries during the process of creating gasoline, motor oil, kerosene and other refined products. Boilers and process heaters emit mercury, lead, dioxins, hydrogen chloride and other toxic pollutants.

And it’s folks like those living in Port Arthur that contend with these dangerous emissions. Kelley doesn’t suffer from respiratory ailments, but plenty in his family do: his daughters, wife and granddaughter all have asthma.

While industries like the Valero Port Arthur Refinery make millions a year in profits, most residents live well below the poverty line. And to make matters worse, an EPA proposal that would define toxic industrial waste as fuel allows all but a few facilities to continue burning spent chemicals, scrap plastics, used motor oil, coal mining waste and other wastes in boilers and process heaters without regulation.

"We have to bear the brunt of this toxic waste being burned in our community," said Kelley.

Kelley believes the EPA must do more to ensure the health of residents like those in Port Arthur are protected. At least enforce laws that exist, like the Clean Air Act, he says.

And what about industry’s sob stories about lost jobs and blue collar hardship? Kelley says he’s heard all these complaints before. He suggests that industries find innovative ways to get rid of waste properly, which could increase jobs and efficiency.

"These companies are more concerned about the bottom line for shareholders than about the residents in our community."

What can you do? The EPA will continue accepting comments until midnight, Aug. 3. Sign up for Earthjustice action alerts to stay posted on how you can speak out.

Raviya was a press secretary at Earthjustice in the Washington, D.C. office from 2008 to 2014, working on issues including federal rulemakings, energy efficiency laws and coal ash pollution.