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Port Arthur activist wins $150,000 environmental prize


John D, you want to engage with a true activist that has been a pain in the rear for Motiva, read this article. Motiva and the Purves gang are busy building the project. They had to buy this guy off to get the permit…. Might be worth connecting with him and seeing if he truly understands Shell’s equity position on crude when the project completes. They won’t be running the Saudi crude as much since it is going to China… where do you think they are going to get the crude…. Answer another question… Where is Shell’s investment of late north of the border in Canada…. oil sands…. on it’s way to PAR…

By Matthew Tresaugue, Houston Chronicle
Published 07:45 a.m., Monday, April 11, 2011

Port Arthur activist Hilton Kelley speaks out in 2008 about Veolia Environmental Services, which is asking permission from the EPA to reverse a longtime ban on importing PCBs. James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle / Houston Chronicle

The public housing project where Hilton Kelley was born and raised sits in the shadows of two refineries that belch toxic chemicals into the air.

His mother moved him away from Carver Terrace long ago, but he is still here, waging what seems to be a one-man crusade in one of America’s most polluted places. With many of this Gulf Coast town’s poorest residents suffering from asthma, skin irritations and cancer, he has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

So for the past decade he has pushed and prodded, with a bit of shouting, mostly by him, for more restrictions on industrial construction and stricter monitoring of plant emissions.

And now, what once seemed like a quixotic pursuit – greater environmental and public health protections in a refinery town – no longer seems so quixotic.

“Port Arthur has been a dumping ground for years because this was the area of least resistance,” Kelley says. “But this is a new day.”

For his work, Kelley is one of the 2011 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, sometimes called the Green Nobel as the highest honor of its kind for grass-roots environmentalists.

He will be in San Francisco today to receive the award, given annually to an environmentalist from each continent, and the $150,000 check that goes with it. Past winners have sought justice for victims of environmental disasters at Love Canal and Bhopal, India, resisted oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and tried to prevent the U.S. military from incinerating chemical weapons.

Film, TV in California

The 50-year-old Kelley came to environmentalism late and without any training in community organizing. He left Port Arthur for the U.S. Navy in 1979 and later settled in Oakland, Calif., where he worked as a stuntman and extra on movies and television shows filmed in the San Francisco Bay area, including CBS’ Nash Bridges

During a visit for Mardi Gras in 2000, Kelley saw his once-vibrant hometown in a relentless decline – its storefronts shuttered, its fields filled with rusty debris, its residents sick and its children with nothing to do. He returned to life in California, but not for long.

“I didn’t see anyone doing anything about it,” he said. “And then one day I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I’m from Port Arthur. What am I doing about it?'”

Kelley recognized that the town could not pull itself back up without addressing the environmental problems first, but he knew change would not come easily in a community dependent on refineries and chemical plants for jobs. One of his early protests outside City Hall attracted only two people, and one was his brother.

Paid for air samples

Port Arthur, near the Louisiana border, was built on oil wealth. The city’s west side, which is largely African-American, is home to eight major industrial plants, including the Motiva and Valero oil refineries.

Without the support of many, including the mayor at the time, Kelley took a different tack, collecting air samples during “upset events,” unpermitted releases caused by lightning strikes, human error, startups and shutdowns. He used the results, at a cost of $500 per sample, to prod regulators and the plants to take action.

Among his victories was a deal with an expanding refinery that included new pollution controls and a $3.5 million fund to support small businesses and provide health coverage for residents of Port Arthur’s west side. He also managed to stop the shipment of highly toxic PCBs from Mexico for disposal at a nearby incinerator.

And his efforts have made Port Arthur visible again. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency put it on a list of 10 cities nationwide that would receive attention and funding over two years to address disproportionate environmental burdens.

“I have a lot of respect for Hilton,” said Al Armendariz, the EPA’s chief for Texas and four adjacent states. “I really admire his work. He cares a lot about his community and he pushes our agency to do all we can to serve them. He is successful because he doesn’t give up and because his goals are to help others.”

Jobs come first

So far, the discussions, which involve Kelley and representatives from the city, EPA and industry, have touched on the relocation of Carver Terrace, additional emissions reductions and an improved alarm network for upset events.

Kelley said his goal is not to close the refineries and chemical plants but to make them cleaner, so that Port Arthur may be able to regain a bit of its past self.

“We understand that Port Arthur may never be what it was, but it can be better than it is,” he said recently while standing among a row of abandoned storefronts on Procter Street, once a main commercial strip in the city’s downtown.

At the same time, his focus on rebuilding the city has put him at odds with other environmentalists. Kelley, for example, does not oppose the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring heavy crude from Canada’s oil sands to the Port Arthur area for refining, because the city has 17 percent unemployment.

“That pipeline will bring thousands of jobs,” he said. “Our fight starts when we smell the sulfur. I’m hopeful that by the time the pipeline is done, the proper emissions controls will be in place.”

Matthew Tejada, director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston, said Kelley’s position made him rethink how he does his job. It’s easy for activists “in the treetops,” like himself, to lose sight of the nuances at the grass-roots level, Tejada said.

“He is one of the best environmental activists in the country because he takes his marching orders from the community,” Tejada said. “It’s not born out of idealism. It’s about seeing the state of a community he loves and grew up in and doing something about it.”



THE WASHINGTON POST: Goldman Environmental Prize goes to Texas man who took on refineries over pollution

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