In 2000, Hilton Kelley was enjoying a comfortable life in Hollywood as a stuntman and actor when he planned a quick trip to his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, to celebrate Mardi Gras. What he found were abandoned buildings and rampant pollution. The poor air quality had always been there, thanks to the eight petrochemical plants and hazardous waste facilities, but asthma and cancer rates had spiked in the largely African American commmunity and there was no one willing to set things right. So Kelley moved back and took it upon himself. Thanks to his efforts, Port Arthur’s west side has fought back against big polluters, secured support for businesses, services and health care and provided similarly impacted communities around the country with a blueprint for action. This year, Kelley was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work and he is also featured in the documentary The New Environmentalists narrated by Robert Redford premiering on PBS on Nov. 4 in New York, with other PBS stations to follow (check local listings). The week of Nov. 14, The New Environmentalists will be shown on PBS World. Below, Kelley talks to E about his journey from actor to activist.
1. E Magazine: Tell me what you saw in Port Arthur when you returned.
Hilton Kelley: I walked around our downtown area and I was just disgusted by the large number of abandoned buildings and boarded-up structures—no pharmacies, no grocery stores, no community center. A lot of kids were playing in the street, young teenagers were selling drugs. And the air smelled like sulfur—it stunk, just like it did when I was a kid. And the question in my mind was “Here it is 2000 and why hasn’t this community advanced?” Instead, it had gotten worse. I was upset with our local government, wondering why they hadn’t done something about it, why the people hadn’t done anything. One day I was looking at the man in the mirror and I questioned that person: “Well you keep talking about what nobody else is doing, but what the hell are you doing?”
2. :E You must have been outraged by the widespread cancer and asthma cases in your community.
H.K.: One of the things that people always say is that “we don’t really know why it is happening” but I organized the Community In-powerment Development Association because we wanted to get some hardcore evidence. So I partnered with the University of Texas Medical Branch and we got with the toxicology department and we got Dr. Marvin Legator to do a simple survey study in the city of Port Arthur. And what his study concluded is that people who were living in industrialized communities were being more impacted by industrial pollution than others. And that it was a direct correlation between the type of chemicals people were being exposed to and the type of illnesses they were displaying.
3. E: You also learned to take air quality samples?
H.K.: I started doing air testing with Denny Larson, the head of the Refinery Reform Campaign. Denny introduced me to the “bucket,” a grab-sample device. We were really shocked by what we found. We found that we had high levels of sulfur in the air around us and that people were being exposed to benzene. That started our campaign to get the air cleaned up.
4. E: Have you reached an understanding with the oil and chemical companies?
H.K.: Through litigation and constant campaigning, we’ve finally got our feet at the table so to speak. In 2006, we filed a lawsuit against Motiva because they were talking about expanding their [oil refinery] operations. We were able to negotiate getting these giant sulfur-recovery units put in at their plant. We were also instrumental in negotiating these facilities putting in flare gas recovery units. And we got them to do fugitive emission checks. And then we negotiated a $3.5 million fund for the community which is overseen by a board and the money is to be used to help revitalize the underserved west side community with businesses and services.
5. E: How has community life improved?
H.K.: People on the west side can now go to the local clinic free of charge. Motiva and Volero [another refinery] foot the bill for that. Each year for the last six years, local residents have been given a $200 voucher per year to go to the doctor. They can use it to get medication or to be seen by the doctor—it’s a pretty unprecedented service. Also there has been less flaring in the area. The oil refineries and chemical plants are more transparent and we’re able to call direct to ask what’s going on if there’s a rumbling or strange odor. They show much more concern for the community than they ever have before.