The Avenging Angel: Hilton Kelley's Fight to Save His Hometown
They started plotting. "I wanted my mom to come to me and tell me what to do," says Kelley. "And one night, a woman in white came to me in my dream. I was dressed in a prison suit in an old Western town. She kept saying, 'I told you not to do it.' In the morning, I told Billy. He said he'd had an identical dream. Our mother had come to us from the grave to save our lives."
From the dream, Kelley established both a strong belief in God and, eventually, a plan to leave home. He joined the navy, wanting to free the American hostages in Iran, but instead sailed around the world on the USS Roanoke, a replenishment oiler that carried fuel for jets and other navy vessels at sea. After four years in the service and two in the Navy Reserve, Kelley set up as a civilian in Oakland. He married and divorced twice, fathering three kids, and tried his hand at show business—acting in the theater and appearing as a stuntman, a stand-in, and an extra on TV shows and in movies with Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. He habitually held several jobs at a time, collecting skills like the merit badges he'd earned as a kid on the way to becoming an Eagle Scout: Kelley worked as a carpenter, a plumber, a handyman, an electrician, a welder, a storyteller at the zoo, an armored-vehicle guard, and a director of an antidrug program in a Bay Area housing project. Cumulatively, his jobs would form the foundation for the community organizing and environmental activism he would later do in Port Arthur. It's a task that demands infinite resources. Each broken thing here requires a different kind of fix.
When Kelley returned to Port Arthur for a visit in February 2000, conditions struck him as more appalling than they had on previous trips. The place he grew up in, rough as it was, had certain amenities even in the refineries' shadows. The liveliness he remembered, the stores, the restaurants, the nightclubs were either vestiges of what they had been or simply gone. "It was like seeing the place for the first time," he says, heading past the turnoff for Spindletop, nearing both the church in Beaumont and an ExxonMobil facility that produces 365.000 barrels of oil a day. "The odors from the refineries were pungent," says Kelley. "There was a large number of people sick with cancer and respiratory problems. Kids were just running, unsupervised, in the streets. It seemed all anybody could do was pray."
The scene haunted Kelley after he returned to Oakland. He'd stay up nights thinking of ways to help and concluded he'd become the protector once more: Gotta get off your knees and roll up your sleeves. He boarded a Greyhound and headed south. But again, the question would become, had Hilton Kelley come home too late?
On the fence line, common wisdom holds that you raise your voice for God and shut your mouth for oil. It's a Do not bite the hand that feeds you kind of edict, and it sticks. But at the Shining Star Baptist Church in Beaumont a decade ago, around the time of Hilton Kelley's homecoming, God and oil were uncharacteristically clashing. The Reverend Roy Malveaux had been trained by the activist Denny Larson—executive director of Global Community Monitor, a California-based environmental justice and human rights organization—to assess pollution levels with a device made from a five-gallon bucket, a pump, and a plastic bag. Through Malveaux and Larson, Kelley learned the bucket, too. He read up on the chemical compounds in the air and learned what they do to the body. It was all around him: millions of pounds of volatile emissions. Hexane, xylene, toluene. He started knocking on doors. "Do you know what you're breathing?" he'd ask, and he'd tell them—methanol, benzene—and they'd look at him, angry or helpless or indifferent, like, Yeah, but what can we do? What can you do?