Port Arthur, Texas Poised to Showcase Environmental Justice History

It sounds like a script from a Hollywood feel good movie:  a poor young man from a housing project surrounded by giant oil refineries joins the Navy to get away, becomes a member of the Screen Actor Guild and appears in TV shows, moves back to his poor run down community determined to clean it up and restore it and becomes a national leader in the fight for communities everywhere to win Environmental Justice.  Luckily for the West side of Port Arthur, Texas, it’s not just a good story –  it’s real life.
In the 10 plus years since Hilton Kelley heard the calling to return to his low income and polluted hometown, a lot has been accomplished with his hard work and persistence.  He founded the Community In-Power & Development Association, a group that works to empower residents to speak out about the problems and be part of the solution of restoring Port Arthur. He has helped reduce pollution and become an advocate to change policies nationally.
Along the way, Kelley met some key people to help him clean up pollution. One of these folks was Denny Larson of the Global Community Monitor (GCM) who introduced him to the air sampling “Bucket.” With this innovative tool, Kelley produced independent air sample results proving how toxic and sickening the air was in town.  Armed with this scientific evidence, he began educating and organizing residents about the connections between the epidemic of cancers and serious health problems and bad air.  As a result of Kelley’s effective work, vision and leadership, he was named to the Board of Directors of GCM.

With the technical help of Neil Carman of the Lone Star Sierra Club, Kelley engaged Texas regulators in battles over enforcement, permits and inadequate air monitoring.  With a growing posse of powerful partners, Hilton hammered away at EPA regulators to get focus on the pollution problems in Port Arthur.  He helped to defeat a proposal to burn toxic PCB waste (imported from Mexico) at a local incinerator and blocked a Shell oil refinery expansion until the company agreed to some of the most stringent pollution controls in the nation.  As a result of his activism, Kelley was appointed to the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, created to address human health and environmental concerns in disadvantaged communities.

Kelley was key in convincing the EPA to name Port Arthur an Environmental Justice Showcase Community, a recognition given to only 10 communities across the nation facing disproportionate environmental burdens. The project was awarded $100,000 over two years to supplement local efforts already in place to “alleviate environmental and human health challenges.” The program is as a model for the “design and implementation of future Environmental Justice projects.”  Kelley serves tirelessly on four of the six committees working on issues like toxic spill warning sirens and relocating as many as 400 homes located too close to refineries and chemical plants.

What’s next for Hilton?  The sky is the limit or should I say clearing the skies?  Let’s hope there is a Hollywood feel good ending for this reality show.  Good Luck to Hilton and Port Arthur, on the road to true Environmental Justice.

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