The Avenging Angel: Hilton Kelley's Fight to Save His Hometown
Putting his new skills into action, he showed up on the steps of city hall in Port Arthur towing a coffin. He painted it black, with an image of a smokestack on the lid, and spoke with conviction to the television and newspaper reporters he had gathered. "This is what our kids are ending up in, and nobody's doing anything about it," he remembers saying. "And I charge the local government here for a lot of our kids becoming ill and dying and ending up in boxes like this." In a later incident, as Kelley tells it, when Port Arthur's then mayor, Oscar Ortiz, suggested to a reporter that a massive shipment of VX nerve agent waste, headed for incineration at a local facility, was as safe as bathwater, Kelley, who was staunchly opposed to bringing the toxin to town, promptly told him to go bathe in it. "My first protests were wild," he says. "After that it got easier and easier. I couldn't sit back and be scared of government and of industry, because the images I keep in my head are the bald-headed women going through chemo and the children hooked up to machines, struggling to breathe."
Soon Kelley was raising his voice wherever he could. Environmental justice issues, after all, are not limited to Port Arthur, Texas, and so Kelley, fueled by his rapid education—and tapping into his long-standing desire to be famous—began visiting other fence line communities. Kelley traveled to Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" to jaw in front of a Shell refinery. He joined efforts in Addyston, Ohio, to protest the proximity of a school to a plastics plant. He went to Louisville, Kentucky, to challenge toxic emissions spewing from 11 chemical facilities in a poisoned neighborhood called Rubbertown. He visited polluted sites in Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia. He landed in Washington, D.C., and protested at the White House. And he flew to London and The Hague to give it to the Shell brass (multinational, multibillion-dollar Shell co-owns Motiva) at their annual shareholder meetings. Kelley, in his cowboy hat, even wrangled some impromptu face time with Shell's then chairman, Sir Philip Watts. "Watts listened to me for about 20 minutes," says Kelley. "When the conversation was over, he knew exactly where Port Arthur was."
At last the city had, in Hilton Kelley, unyielding, round-the-clock environmental leadership. Which happened just in time for Motiva—whose other owner is Saudi Aramco, the largest producer of crude oil on the planet—to announce a huge expansion project in September 2005. Its 275,000-barrels-per-day facility would increase output to 600,000 barrels per day. Motiva Port Arthur would become the largest refinery in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Kelley, who by then had founded CIDA, the Community In-Power & Development Association, would team up with his old friend Denny Larson, along with Neil Carman, PhD, at the Sierra Club in Austin, Eric Schaeffer at the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C., and environmental attorney Jim Blackburn in Houston to block the expansion permit.
"The idea wasn't to keep the expansion from happening," says Kelley. "I'm not against industry. Industry brings jobs and money here." For Kelley the notion hits close to home. Marie's kids all perform various tasks for the oil companies. And until Hilton convinced her not to, Marie worked at ExxonMobil—as a security guard, inhaling chemicals over the course of 12-hour shifts. "At least 60 percent of the city's tax base comes from industry," says Kelley. "It's not going anywhere. But the question is: How do we coexist?" With that in mind, Kelley and his gang tied up the expansion efforts in formal hearings for months. He wanted the new construction to include measures to lower emissions. He wanted money for healthcare on the West Side and a fund for development and possibly some help demolishing Carver Terrace and moving its residents away from the fence line.
"Stalling projects like these," says Larson, "throws these guys into a panic. It brings them to the table to start talking." When the expansion got under way in 2007 (it will be finished next year), Motiva agreed to better emission standards (though environmentalists say the whole system of monitoring emissions is a flawed, bureaucratized science, so "better" is loose terminology at best); the company has spent millions of dollars implementing state-of-the-art emission-recovery programs. And in a landmark settlement, it awarded the Port Arthur Communities Fund $3.5 million to be put to use on the West Side. All together, Kelley has brought in nearly $10 million in settlement and community-partnership money that will ultimately help people here buy food in an actual grocery store, complete school, and see doctors.
In April Kelley won a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, often billed as the environmentalist's Nobel. He is the first African-American male and the first Texan to win the award in its 22-year history. As a result, Kelley has enhanced his standing with policymakers in Washington—at least the sympathetic ones. He was honored at the EPA, in the Oval Office, and by members of Congress, although Kelley's own congressman, Ted Poe, tried to send a staffer in his stead to a scheduled meeting with Kelley. Kelley declined to see the aide, and Poe, whose voting record indicates his pro-industry positions, met him the next day. Back home, at city hall, site of his coffin protest, Kelley was also recognized for his Goldman win. He spoke to the chamber during a city council session, thrust his weighty bronze Goldman prize forward, and gave his best You're Going to Have to Deal with Me for a Very Long Time speech. Afterward there was a reception in the fifth-floor lobby with Hawaiian Punch, a sheet cake, and a panoramic view of all the refineries and chemical plants sending puffy white clouds into the sky.