Environmental Racism in America Part 2: Spotlight on the Gulf Coast

July 1, 2015

Last week we discussed how communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to live next to highly polluting facility and therefore bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination compared to whiter and more affluent communities.

In the foreword written for Steve Lerner’s book on fenceline communities titled “Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States,” Phil Brown says, “In a stratified society where race and class separate individuals, neighborhoods, and whole communities, people of color know that their homes, roads, schools, utilities, parks and ball fields, sanitation services and police protection are inferior to whiter and wealthier places. So it has not been a big leap for them to see that similar inequality exists in environmental contamination. For about as long as there has been a toxic activist movement… an environmental justice movement has existed as well.”

Lerner’s book goes on to provide a dozen cases studies – one of which features 2011 Goldman Prize winner Hilton Kelley – on what life is like in these fenceline communities. Lerner also previously wrote a book featuring 2004 Goldman Prize winner Margie Richard’s efforts to secure a relocation deal with Shell Oil, whose pollution had plagued her community for years.

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This week we are spotlighting Kelley and Richard’s work to empower their communities and fight for environmental justice.

Hilton Kelley was born and raised on the West Side of Port Arthur, Texas. Located among eight major petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities on the Gulf Coast, the largely African-American neighborhood 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.

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. In the two minute video below, Kelley describes the situation in Port Arthur:

Margie Richard grew up in the historically African-American neighborhood of Old Diamond in Norco, Louisiana, in a house just 25 feet away from Shell Chemicals plant’s fence line. Years later, she would lead the front line of a long, hard-won battle to secure an agreement from Shell Chemical to reduce its toxic emissions by 30 percent, contribute $5 million to a community development fund, and finance the relocation of her Old Diamond neighbors in Louisiana. Richard, whose campaign has been hailed as a landmark environmental justice victory, holds the distinction as the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize. In the video below, she confronts Shell Oil executives with a simple question:

Join us next week as we take a look at how 2013 Goldman Prize winner Kimberly Wasserman empowered her Latino community to shut down two coal-fired power plants and transform them into parks and open spaces where residents can exercise and enjoy the fresh air.

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