When Hilton Kelley takes me to see the Port Arthur, Texas, housing project where he was born, it isn’t to complain about the usual eyesores. There’s no graffiti, no broken windows, no trash on the ground.
“People care about the neighborhood,” Kelley says.
The problem is next-door. Adjacent to the property are oil and gas refineries, petrochemical plants and toxic-waste incinerators. Companies such as Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., Shell Oil Co. and Valero Energy Corp. have been part of the Port Arthur skyline for decades.
“Almost every day we’re getting some weird odor oozing through the community,” he says.
Bad as it is, though, it would be a lot worse if Kelley hadn’t come back after years away from his hometown and decided to fight the filth. His efforts won him the Goldman Environmental Prize last month, along with its $150,000 award.
Kelley, now 50, left Port Arthur in 1979 to join the military. “The Village People really sold me on the Navy,” he laughs before adding, “I love my country. I love my hometown, and my community.”
After leaving the service, he found some acting work in Oakland, including a job as a stand-in for Mykelti Williamson in the television series “Midnight Caller.”
In 2000, he returned to Port Arthur for Mardi Gras celebrations and was appalled at what had become of the old neighborhood.
“I found myself walking around wondering, ‘What happened? Why did all the stores close? Where did all the people go? Why was our community falling apart?’”
The culprits at that time were eight major petrochemical and hazardous-waste facilities, all planted right up against the largely black neighborhoods on the west side of the tracks.
“I believe we have been targeted because we are low-income here, and the people don’t have a loud voice.”
Kelley provided the voice. He launched the nonprofit Community in Power and Development Association Inc. and, with assistance from the environmental justice group Global Community Monitor, started training residents on testing air samples using simple equipment.
The noxious odors were correlated with serious health problems. Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, has significantly higher rates of cancer and other illnesses than the rest of Texas.
Kelley has also brought the message of environmental injustice to a wider audience. In 2002, he testified before the U.S. Senate on behalf of poor communities. He has spoken on the issue at Shell’s annual meetings, in London and The Hague -- as a shareholder, having purchased a single share of stock to secure the right to a microphone.
In 2006, he helped negotiate a “good neighbor” agreement with Motiva Enterprises LLC, a joint venture of Shell and Saudi Refining, requiring, among other things, that the refinery assist local residents with health-care coverage. The deal also set up a $3.5 million fund for community development.
That year he also led a campaign to block Veolia Corp.’s bid to import and incinerate 20,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at its toxic-waste facility in Port Arthur.
These and other accomplishments won him the Goldman Prize. When asked how he plans to spend the $150,000 award, he laughs.
“I’m going take a vacation,” he says, but adds that he plans to devote more time to the hands-on part of his work than to raising money, which has been all-consuming.
After a tour of the neighborhood, he takes me to Kelley’s Kitchen, the soul-food diner he owns and occasionally uses as a meeting place for the nonstop organizing.
‘I Give a Damn’
“What made me take up the fight is that I care,” he says, stroking a goatee that has gone from pepper to salt in the past 10 years. “I like to say I give a damn.”
This is good for the community, and it ought to inspire other depressed places that have become dumping grounds for the refuse of the industrial age. It is possible to effect change by giving a damn and making noise.
“I was very naive when I came back to Port Arthur. I thought I would be here two or three years, get the job done and then I’d be back to the Bay Area,” Kelley says wistfully, but with pride. “I don’t see this work ending anytime soon.”
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)