Hilton Kelley: Port Arthur Oil Refinery Activist Wins Huge Green Prize

Ten years ago, by anyone's standard, Hilton Kelley was living the dream.

Then just turning 40, he was in sunny California, having escaped his malodorous hometown of Port Arthur via the United States Navy. After his life at sea came to a close, Kelley came ashore in Oakland, where he had developed a career as an actor / stuntman. Kelley was admitted to the Screen Actor's Guild and counted Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump, 24, CSI:NY) as a close friend.

The broad-shouldered, shaven-headed martial arts brown belt didn't forsake his industrial hometown completely. He recalls that every three or four years he would return -- usually he would kind of parachute into town, hobnob with his relatives for a few days, and then jet back to Oakland.

A trip to the Port Arthur Mardi Gras in 2000 would prove life-changing, both for Kelley and Port Arthur.

Ultimately, this pre-Lenten visit would turn into a permanent homecoming for Kelley, a permanent headache for the owners of Port Arthur's toxin-spewing refineries, and now, the acclaim of the whole world: Kelley is one of six recipients of environmentalism's top international award, the Goldman Prize, a.k.a. "the green Nobel prize," which carries with it a very tidy $150,000 stipend.

And it all started with a bike ride around Kelley's West Side neighborhood, the same tough streets that would later bring UGK's Dirty South hardcore rap to the world. Astride his nephew's Schwinn, Kelley rode slow and watched the crackheads staggering through the streets, pedaled past the boarded-up storefronts at the places he used to shop, gazed teary-eyed at the tumbledown shotgun shacks now used as shooting galleries and trick pads.

Over and around it all, there remained the mighty gas flares billowing their sickly-sweet emissions. Some, namely absentee owners and shareholders and some employees of those refineries, would tell you the fumes smelled like money, but to Hilton Kelley and the people he knew and loved, it smelled more like chronic disease and premature death.

His town had gone into what looked to him like a death spiral, and he hadn't noticed until then. What had happened to the city he had grown up in, where families sat on porches after dark and where he had risen to the Order of the Arrow, a notch above Eagle Scout?

For days after he got back to Oakland, he couldn't shake what he saw from his mind. Time and time again they came to forefront of his mind unbidden. The people seemed so downtrodden and fatalistic. Why wasn't anyone doing anything about what he had seen? What was to be done?

And then one morning, while shaving, it hit Kelley like a ton of bricks.

"I kept talking about how nobody was doing anything, but yet I was a Port Arthuran too, and I've lived there in California away from it all, and I have information, knowledge and experience," he tells Hair Balls. "There's a lot that I could contribute to revitalizing this community. And after questioning the man in the mirror, I had a dream. To be perfectly honest with you, and it may sound a little clichéd, but I actually had a dream about the things I could do for this community and that was so surreal to me it actually lead me to come back to this town."

Few people with much choice in the matter return to Port Arthur to stay. "My cousin couldn't believe I was back, I couldn't believe I was back, but after that dream -- I'm a God-fearing man and I don't mind saying it -- I felt like God was giving me the message. He was saying 'I've given you the vision, I've given you the message, I'm trying to show you the way.'"

And show the way he has these past ten years. He helped stop 20,000 tons of Mexican PCBs -- chemical compounds known to cause cancer and skin diseases -- from being imported to Port Arthur for incineration at the French-owned Veolia facility. He now calls it his greatest achievement, just ahead of his successful efforts in getting the Dutch / Saudi owners of the gargantuan, 275,000 barrel-per-day Motiva refinery to reinvest in the West Side community over which it looms. Kelley says Motiva donated $3.5 million to help build recreational facilities for West Side kids and pick up the tab for some of the health care needs of people who live in the shadows of the mighty plant.

His next fight is to try to get the refineries to install alarm sirens for chemical emergencies. It's actually an old fight of his, but he is now bringing to it renewed focus. Kelley says he has been pushing the refinery companies to put in a siren for almost the entire eleven years he has been raising hell in Port Arthur. "Every time there's an incident in Port Arthur, they tell us that this automated phone-dialing system called STANS works fine, but we believe it really doesn't alert that many people. Sometimes we hear about incidents from neighbors or because we smell odors."

Kelley points out the robocalls can't reach everybody. "Just imagine being in the garden or at the park with your kids. You're not near a television or a phone -- you just want to leave the technology at home, and all of a sudden there's an explosion and boom, you have no warning about what to do."

In 2001, Dr. Marvin Legator, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, wrapped up a study on the health effects of life in Port Arthur and Beaumont versus living in Galveston. He found that 80 percent of Westside residents suffered from heart and lung ailments; the numbers in Galveston, drawn from people of similar ages and ethnic backgrounds, were 30 percent for heart issues and ten percent for breathing problems.

Add in all the perils of one of Texas's toughest ghettoes, and Port Arthur comes across to some visitors as something even worse than "the armpit of Texas." In some ways, it looks as if you slapped down a blighted section of Detroit right on top of Pasadena.

"Because of lack of opportunity, because of lack of community centers, a lack of a stronger education base, kids, yeah, they are having a tough time out there in the streets," Kelley says. "Drugs are running rampant, but they didn't start this. Crack cocaine came on the scene in 1982, '83. Somewhere along the line the ball was dropped by the elders. Somewhere along the line, enough wasn't given back to these kids as we nurtured them, as they grew."

Kelley believes that's changing now. And he would never go back to that charmed life he once lead on San Francisco Bay.

"I don't regret [coming back]," he tells Hair Balls. "It was the best move I ever made in my life. This is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. Not rewarding in a monetary sense because it's not that, but it's very gratifying to help a community turn around and help the people in that community see with new eyes. "

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax