2011 Prize Week: Q&A with Hilton Kelley

April 14, 2011

Hilton Kelley is an environmental justic leader at the forefront of the fight to protect communities from harmful industrial pollution on the Texas Gulf Coast.  Learn about how he’s making a difference in his community of Port Arthur, Texas in the Q&A below.

This week, the Goldman Prize is hosting the 2011 recipients in the US, with events and a media tour in San Francisco and Washington, DC.  We’ll be posting Q&As with each recipient and we encourage you to ask your own questions in the comments section below or via our Facebook page and Twitter feed.  We’ll do our best to have the recipients respond.  

Q. What inspired you to fight against oil industry pollution in Port Arthur, TX?

A. It started out with just giving a damn about my community; the kids in my community; why so many people were dying of cancer; why the kids’ noses are still running even in the summer… I’ve always loved Port Arthur, it’s my home and I hated the idea of graduating high school because of the idea of everyone dispersing. When I went back home to Port Arthur in 2000 after having been away for many years, I saw there were so many more refineries and things were much worse. The rotten egg smell had always been there, we always knew people were dying of cancer because of the air we’re breathing, and I remember stepping into the water at Mcfaddin Beach and my leg getting stuck in tar…but now it was more serious. More prisons were being built in our community, more kids going to prison, restaurants and shops on Main Street were closed down – the community was dying.

Q. How do you monitor the oil industry’s activities exactly?

A. I keep a camera on me at all times now. Just a few weeks ago there was a flare from the Chevron plant that created a smoke plume that went all the way to the Louisiana border and I got pictures of it. You can hear a boom at any minute and you must be ready. I’ll go out in the middle of the night because I smell something in the air. And now the refineries self-report to me. They know that I’m always watching so they come to me preemptively when something happens to let me know they’re working to fix the problem.

Q. You had a 25 year absence from Port Arthur, during which time you were based in the Bay Area, first stationed in the Navy then working as a stuntman and actor. How did this work prep you for your current work?

A. I always wanted to go into the military, but my mother was against it. Then the Iran hostage crisis happened and I wanted to help. I’m a Boy Scout; I can recite the Boy Scout pledge and I was always the one to help the kid who was getting pushed around at school. So when I saw the Iran situation, I wanted to help out. I didn’t tell mom when I went to talk to a recruiter. But then my mom passed away when I was 18, and I needed to find meaning in my life, so I signed up. At age 19 I was ready to see action and help bring those hostages home, but they ended up releasing the hostages when I was 2 weeks into boot camp. I didn’t see any action and now I’m grateful for that. I got out of the service right before Desert Storm. It just wasn’t meant to be. God had other plans. My battle was on another front.

Q. After being away so long, and with all the health risks you’re aware of, why did you choose to move back to Port Arthur?

A. I know I’m being impacted. I have hypertension and hypertension is another symptom of long-term exposure to these chemicals. It’s probably time for me to leave…I’ve thought about it but I can’t leave. I’m the only one who can do this. I work with great people but they’re all too polite… when I’m at the table with people negotiating, it’s war. I’ll shake a person’s hand at the end, but I’m there to fight. My friend, the actor Mykelti Williamson – Bubba from Forrest Gump – said “You’re talking about all these people dying of cancer, and you’re going to move back there? Why not be the general on the hill? You should think of yourself as well, stay healthy so you can do more good.”

But I can’t be the general. Right now I’m needed in the field.

Learn more about Hilton and donate to his organization’s work.