Prize Winners Today: How Hilton Kelley is Building Community against a Backdrop of Environmental Injustice

October 18, 2021

By Ellen Lomonico

The day before our interview, environmental justice champion Hilton Kelley (United States, 2011) was celebrating his granddaughter’s birthday—“the big 10.” With powerful, broad shoulders and a thick, white beard, it’s easy to see how the former actor embodies the role of a slightly intimidating but nonetheless jovial grandfather. It’s a responsibility that he holds for many: Since moving back to his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, Hilton has emerged as a formidable community leader in the ongoing fight for environmental justice.

A Firsthand Experience with Environmental Racism

Daily life in Port Arthur—pick-up basketball, yardwork, and birthday parties—occurs in the shadow of heavy industry. A coastal town in southeast Texas, the city is home to the Valero, Chevron, Oxbow Calcining, and Motiva refineries, the latter of which is the largest oil refinery in North America, with an average output of 633,000 barrels of oil per day. Port Arthur is also home to about 56,000 residents, approximately 40% of whom are Black, with 27% of the population living in poverty. The city has among the highest rates of cancer in the state.

The petrochemical facilities produce toxin carcinogens such as benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide, to name just a few. The American Lung Association gives Jefferson County a grade of F for air quality. A 2004 study found that “80 percent of Port Arthur residents self-reported heart ailments and other health problems, compared with only 30 percent in Galveston,” a city upwind of the refineries. “One of five households in Port Arthur has kids with asthma,” Hilton explained. “All four of my sister-in-law’s kids have asthma. It’s just not safe.”

Kids playing basketball just next to oil refineries in Port Arthur (Photo: Hilton Kelley)

Extreme weather events trigger an even greater release of pollutants. Prior to a hurricane or storm, refineries use flaring to preemptively burn off flammable gasses that could prove catastrophic in the event of storm damage. These flares, although necessary preventative measures, produce concentrated air pollution and are hazardous to the health of locals. Before the Texas freeze in February 2021, “the 118,100 pounds of emissions from Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery…were more than three times the excess emissions that it declared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the whole of 2019.” As climate change increases the frequency of storms, these heavy emissions events will occur more regularly.

“We have to look at new ways of creating our energy. It’s the only way around,” Hilton asserted. It’s a not a statement born of wistful naivety but, rather, of necessity. Industrial pollution is not an abstraction for Hilton and his community; they’re surrounded by it and, for him, it’s personal.

A History of Environmental Discrimination

Hilton grew up in a low-income housing project alongside the Motiva refinery, an area referred to as a “fenceline community” because of its immediate proximity to the plants. After a tragic incident of domestic violence claimed his mother’s life, Hilton joined the Navy at 19. Some 20 years later, following a stint in California’s movie industry, he eventually made his way back to Port Arthur in 2000.

Against the backdrop of intense environmental and social challenges, in a region where refineries dot the landscape like toxic squares on a monopoly board, one may wonder why Hilton decided to move back.

“It’s home,” Hilton stated succinctly. Grit, family, community, and shared experience unite the residents of Port Arthur. “We didn’t just move here; no—we were forced to live here,” Hilton continued. For residents of Port Arthur, the current hardships are a direct biproduct of hundreds of years of racial discrimination—from slavery to Jim Crow to discriminatory housing policies and environmental injustice today.

Today, the residents of Port Arthur are still fighting against a recurring motif in their profoundly pro-industry state: the idea that environmental regulations stifle progress and oil production brings jobs. In Port Arthur, as in countless other communities, this is simply not true. Despite a booming oil industry, the unemployment rate in Port Arthur hovers around 9% and median income is 60% of the state average. What’s more, a 2011 EPA report concluded that the benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act—a seminal environmental law regulating air pollution—exceeded the costs by a factor of more than 30 to one in terms of lives saved, illnesses avoided, jobs created, and innovations in industry.

Channeling his frustration into an unrelenting mission to improve the health and livelihoods of his community, Hilton founded the Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA) in 2000. For over 20 years, the nonprofit has provided a voice for the disenfranchised residents of Port Arthur through citizen science, political advocacy, and education.

Community Education Sets the Stage for Progress

The 2011 Goldman Prize furthered Hilton’s platform as an environmental justice advocate, propelling him into the national spotlight. He joined voices like Margie Richard’s (United States, 2004), met with President Obama, was featured in Oprah magazine, and served on an EPA advisory committee. Despite his elevated platform, which he’s used to advocate for environmental progress at the municipal, state, and federal levels, Hilton and CIDA are still ready to take to the streets to bring immediate attention to their work. “Our community is very participatory,” he proudly exclaimed. “Now that we’ve educated people, they are very engaged.”

President Barack Obama greets Hilton Kelley in the White House on April 13, 2011, with John Goldman looking on (Photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Currently, Hilton is planning to hold a press conference and demonstration in front of the Oxbow Calcining plant in Port Arthur. Oxbow Calcining produces petroleum coke, a biproduct of oil refining used in aluminum, fuels, and other products. According to state data, Oxbow Calcining “released about 22 million pounds of sulfur dioxide each year from 2016 through 2019.” The emissions create a sulfuric smell of rotten eggs that drifts through the city, contribute to air pollution, and damage local plant life.

Hilton contends that, ultimately, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has fallen short in its responsibility to hold Oxbow Calcining accountable for its emissions. Hilton hopes that the protest will inspire the EPA to open an investigation, persuade TCEQ to issue stricter emissions controls for the plant, and hold the company accountable for increased air monitoring.

Climate Change—Happening Now

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of hurricanes and tropical storms making landfall on the Gulf Coast. Hilton has felt the impacts directly. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey (Category 4) flooded his home, and, with insufficient assistance provided by FEMA, it took over a year and half to rebuild. Hurricane Laura (also Category 4) followed in 2020; it was initially projected to make landfall in Port Arthur but ultimately veered east toward Louisiana. While he expressed gratitude for the aid he received after Harvey, Hilton noted that, even in the wake of Laura, “you’re still left reeling. If you don’t have shingles on your roof, you don’t have shingles on your roof. There needs to be provisions for citizens who sustain damage, even in areas which don’t experience a direct hit.”

The low-lying Montrose neighborhood (Photo: Hilton Kelley)

The rise in numbers of storms is especially troubling for the residents of Montrose, a formerly agricultural community in the heart of the city’s Black community. The neighborhood’s low-lying location makes it especially vulnerable to extreme weather events (the swampy community sits about four to five feet below the main road). As rain washes toxins off the road and forms pools in the already-saturated ground, the area becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Then, Hilton added, “the kids go outside and they have fun in that water.”

CIDA is currently working alongside organizations like River Network, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Anthropocene Alliance, American Planning Association, and ISeeChange on a green infrastructure project to improve the climate resiliency of the area. The project will study the water quality in the flooded areas, with the goal of using the data to help relocate the community or elevate the homes. CIDA will also work to improve organic drainage by creating bioswales and planting sweetbay magnolia trees, a native tree that flourishes in moist woodlands, streams, and swamps. The Goldman Environmental Foundation is also supporting the project through its grantmaking program.

The climate resiliency project reflects Hilton’s powerful commitment to safeguard his community. He is personally not a fan of managed retreat, an increasingly popular response to the effects of climate change, in which communities migrate inland to avoid rising sea-levels and storm surges. Rather, Hilton implores the state and federal governments to preserve communities in their current locations. “How can we save our land instead of abandon it?” he questions. “We need to transform the impacts of climate change.”

Today, as ships laden with fossil fuels continue to travel in and out of Port Arthur, Hilton is philosophical yet practical about the battles ahead. He encourages the public to realize that, regardless of where they live, pollution is everyone’s problem: “You may not live in Richmond, California, Norco, Louisiana, or Port Arthur, Texas, but what comes out of those communities travels far and wide. We are all being impacted. It will benefit all of us to enter the fight for environmental justice…. Working together, we can get it done.”

If you would like to support the Community In-Power and Development Association, visit its website.


This blog post is part of the Prize Winner Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?