Hilton Kelley is a leading figure in the battle for environmental justice on the Texas Gulf Coast, as he fights for communities living in the shadow of polluting industries.
Located among eight major petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities on the Texas Gulf Coast, the largely African-American West Side neighborhood of Port Arthur has long suffered as a result of the near constant emissions spewing from smokestacks ringing the community. Port Arthur is noted by the EPA as having some of the highest levels of toxic air releases in the country, and the companies operating the local plants have been cited with hundreds of state air pollution violations.
The West Side’s asthma and cancer rates are among the highest in the state, while the community’s income levels are among the lowest. As industry has grown, local property values have plummeted. Few jobs exist in the plants for West Side residents. At the end of each workday, a stream of cars heads away from Port Arthur’s industrial facilities toward the more affluent towns nearby as the gas flares continue to burn within sight of the West Side’s schools and federal housing projects.
The facilities operating in the area include the Motiva oil refinery, the Valero refinery, the Huntsman Petrochemical plant, the Chevron Phillips plant, the Great Lakes Carbon Corporation’s petroleum facility, the Total Petrochemicals USA facility, Veolia incinerator facility and the BASF Fina Petrochemicals plant.
He and his brother were raised by their mother, who made sure her sons worked hard in school and stayed out of trouble. Kelley participated in sports, martial arts, and theater and became an Eagle Scout. He began attending college right out of high school, but when his mother died tragically during his freshman year, his life took a different path.
Kelley decided to get himself to California so he could achieve his dream of becoming a professional actor. A stint in the US Navy brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area, and he settled in Oakland after completing his tour of duty. Through a series of lucky breaks, Kelley began working as a stunt man and actor on several major movies and television shows that were filmed in the Bay Area, including CBS’s Nash Bridges.
During a visit home in 2000, 21 years after he left Port Arthur, Kelley saw the community sickened by industrial pollution, plagued with crime, and teetering on the brink of total economic collapse. Kelley realized then that it was his true calling to come back and help rebuild his hometown. With no formal community organizing training, he set out to turn things around.
In 2006, when Motiva announced that it would expand its Port Arthur facility into the largest petrochemical refinery in the country, Kelley got to work on the opposition. As a result of Kelley’s community outreach campaign and advocacy, Motiva installed state-of-the-art equipment to reduce harmful emissions. Kelley negotiated a now-famous “good neighbor” agreement with Motiva that provided health coverage for the residents of the West Side for three years and established a $3.5 million fund to help entrepreneurs launch new businesses in the community. He also led a campaign beginning in 2006 that prevented Veolia Corporation from importing more than 20,000 tons of toxic PCBs from Mexico for incineration at its Port Arthur plant.
Kelley helped set Port Arthur’s West Side neighborhood on the path to redevelopment. His leadership over 10 years has resulted in cooperation between industry and his community, which has led to reduced emissions and better lives for the people living next door to some of the petrochemical facilities that help fuel the rest of the United States.
Kelley continues to advocate for stricter environmental regulations on the Texas Gulf Coast and serves on the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Thanks to his leadership, Port Arthur has recently been selected as an EPA national showcase city, bringing new attention and funding to the community. Kelley and his wife also operate Kelley’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant that employs West Side residents.
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