Clean Air Is a God-Given Right

Residents of Port Arthur, Texas are surrounded by industry. Grassroots activist Hilton Kelley is helping them stand up to polluting neighbors.

In the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, Texas, the sprawling Motiva and Valero refineries process more than 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The city is also surrounded by oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and a chemical waste incinerator, and is downwind of nearly every coastal refinery in Texas. Port Arthur residents, particularly those in the predominantly African American West Side, have been breathing sulfur dioxide, benzene, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants for decades.

Hilton Kelley grew up right at the Valero fenceline in West Side public housing in the 1970s and 1980s. As a young man, he left Port Arthur for a tour in the Navy, followed by a career in show business as a Hollywood stuntman. He told me of his time at sea: “It really makes you rethink your life. I always wanted to come back to make Port Arthur a better place.”

Photo by Hilton Kelley.
Photo by Hilton Kelley.

When Hilton returned in 2000 he was alarmed by the economic downturn and the high rates of respiratory and cancer-related illness in Port Arthur. He founded the Community In-Power Development Association (CIDA) to help residents stand up to polluting industries and continues to lead the organization today as CEO.

In collaboration with allies, CIDA has celebrated several victories over the years, including preventing Veolia Corporation from incinerating more than 20,000 tons of toxic PCBs in Port Arthur and crafting the national Startup, Shutdown, Malfunction law that requires states to better regulate big polluters during operational periods when emissions are often higher.

In 2011, Hilton won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activists for his work negotiating a “good neighbor” agreement with the Motiva refinery, becoming the first African-American male and the first Texan to win the award. He continues to live in Port Arthur, where he spoke with me about his 20-plus years of advocacy on behalf of the community.

Can you talk about the intersection of civil rights and environmental justice in terms of who lives in Port Arthur and the toxic burdens they bear every day?

I grew up literally on the other side of the tracks. In the South they had railroad tracks that divided everyone and had discriminatory practices with housing. So, in Port Arthur, African Americans had to live on the west side of town.

I believe that breathing clean air and drinking clean water is a God-given right. I believe that a lot of our environmental rights have been stripped away from us because these industries basically dump at will.

The big oil boom happened here in Texas in 1901. African-American males were given the dirty jobs cleaning oil tanks, coming home with oil all over their hands and arms and face. Many of those people didn’t even live past 40 or 50. Back in the ’30s and ’40s those facilities understood what those chemicals would do. And yet they kept it a secret, very much like they do today.

Of course, you’d smell the odors in the air. The air had this rotten egg odor and sometimes it even had a metallic or chemical type of smell. Back in those days a lot of children suffered with various skin diseases. Some kids would get sores on their legs or on their arms.

You left Port Arthur as a young man and returned 20 years later. In the past, you’ve described coming home as “seeing the place for the first time.” What made you want to settle down there and work to uplift your community?

When I moved back in 2000, the city was really in a dilapidated state when it came to our downtown area. The air still had that foul odor that I grew up smelling. Many of the Black shops were closed. The movie theater was gone. There was basically no investment. It seemed like they were just waiting for that community to collapse. It was taxation without representation.

There was a Juneteenth celebration going on and they had speakers talking about community revitalization. My heart said, Okay, Hilton. You came home to do this work. So, I went up on stage and I started talking to the people about Port Arthur and what it used to look like. I said, “I’m starting an organization, and I want to get to know everybody out there who is interested in assisting me with this challenge. Because it’s not a me fight, it’s a we fight. We’re going to have to do this together.”

I started the Community In-Power and Development Association. I believe before anybody can actually empower you, you first have to have the power within you. I could see the power in that community, but they just didn’t know how to use it. We are already empowered. We just need to know how to organize and put that power into action.

Along the way you met elders in your community who showed you how to gather data about refinery emissions and measure air quality. How did these experiences expand your vision of what CIDA could be?

Mr. Alfred Dominic ran for city council when it was unpopular for Blacks to be on city council. He took me to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) [which is our state environmental regulatory agency]. By looking through the refinery voluntary emissions reports, I found that many emissions were illegal and unregulated. I also found that some superseded their allowed amount by tons.

I wanted to make our community a better place. One of the ways to do that was to clean up the air quality. And that’s how everything started as far as my environmental justice fight.

Has there ever been a commissioned health study in Port Arthur on the impacts of all these toxins and carcinogens emitted by the refineries?

There has never been a cumulative impact study done by the US Environmental Protection Agency or by the TCEQ. But the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, came to Port Arthur and Dr. Marvin Legator worked with me setting up a symptom survey. They took 100 people from Port Arthur, 100 people from [neighboring] Beaumont, and 100 people from Galveston, [which is about 75 miles southeast,] and asked them key questions about health and the environment they live in.

Legator found a direct correlation between the air quality and the illnesses people were dealing with. Port Arthur and Beaumont have oil and gas industries. We have large refineries and chemical plants. Therefore, we shared the same symptoms when it came to respiratory illnesses like bronchitis and acute asthma. We share almost the same numbers when it comes to people dying in our community from various types of cancers. And he also found that in Galveston, there were fewer people that were ill from cancer or respiratory problems. The unique difference about Galveston was the fact that there were no oil and gas industries in their community.

CIDA and other nonprofits sued the Valero refinery over emissions violations in 2007 and won. What were the benefits to your community from that lawsuit?

The benefit from the lawsuit against the Valero Oil refinery was that we got them to put in sulfur recovery units. They ended up in a lawsuit with the Community In-Power and Development Association because they had a major sulfur release in 2007. It was a huge explosion. After that event took place, people were sick. They went to the doctor with burning eyes, scratchy throats, just feeling that they couldn’t breathe.

Then the industry decided to come up and talk to folks. They started talking about the plant’s operation and they went on and on with the process. Finally, I said “What do you plan on doing to help the citizens that you dumped all that sulfur on? You’ve had a major impact in our community, you have hurt these people, they have spent their own hard-earned dollars to get medical attention when you caused the damage.” I started talking to the people. I said, “Do y’all want to hear about how you can be compensated?” “YES! That’s what we came here for!” And some people said, “Hilton you started trouble, blah, blah, blah.” But I started good trouble.

Is it hard to mobilize your community to stand up against refineries when many Port Arthur residents work in the industry?

It was tough and it still is tough.

I get people more involved with protesting against big polluters when I point out that you may not have a problem with breathing in sulfur or the gases that are emitted from this plant, but do you understand that that little child standing next to you is breathing the same type of toxins in her little lungs? Her body can’t take that. So, help me to at least push these guys to reduce emissions by standing with me.

You have stated that you’re not against industry. You just want the refineries to follow the EPA clean-air rules. Is trying to coexist with refineries enough for the health and economic well-being of Port Arthur?

If you take those industries away from Port Arthur, you will have a failed economy. This whole city was built on oil and gas. How do you get those workers to move into a solar panel business? Will they be able to compete with the amount of money that these industries are paying? You couldn’t do the transition abruptly.

This is why we’re not about shutting [industry] down. But we can do a better job at protecting our communities.

President Biden appointed Shalanda Baker as the first-ever deputy director for energy justice in the Department of Energy. She is charged with implementing the Justice 40 Initiative, which commits 40 percent of federal investments in energy, transportation, and water infrastructure to poor communities. How will Port Arthur take advantage of Justice 40?

I think this is a great opportunity to get young people prepared for green jobs, good jobs. It’s going to help to breathe life into fenceline communities. I think we’re in a good position to receive some of that funding to get started with a survey to understand how we could get these businesses started.

And at the same time, it’s also going to help to create a better quality of life. This administration is really going to help to boost up the economy in those low-income areas. We’re really excited about the Biden administration and all of the great opportunities that they’re initiating.

How can you be sure that the funds will get to the right place in your community?

We must have oversight of those funds because lack of oversight leads to corruption. It’s important that the Department of Energy have some oversight to make sure that those communities aren’t taken advantage of and that money isn’t misappropriated.

It seems we are in a transformative time with the Biden administration’s focus on energy and environmental justice. Are you hopeful about the current administration? What challenges do you foresee lie ahead?

I do have a lot of hope and faith in this administration. I believe that Biden’s going to hold true to his conviction to do something about climate change and reduce the pollution in underserved communities. I don’t think that his presidency is by mistake. I think it’s by universal design. It’s time for change. We’ve suffered long enough. There are battles up ahead still because the oil and gas industries are still doing what they do, and they still need to be monitored and checked and — when needed — pulled to the carpet for neglecting to do a better job at reducing their emissions.

You have been bringing your creative expression to your advocacy work to give voice to your community. Can you talk about that?

Within our culture, music has always been a way of expressing the heartbeat of our community. Music, song, poems, even dance sometimes — it’s creative expression that releases the pressure from within. Music is a great release for me, and so is poetry. One night I was sitting in my living room and there was a huge explosion at the Motiva Oil Refinery. When the explosion hit, it rattled my windows, and I could feel the combustion inside the room. Boom! The sky, just a bright, bright orange.

My blood pressure just went up. I was just so angry. I just started writing how I felt at that particular moment. That’s how the two worlds collided, out of sheer frustration and anger. I was just led to do it. This particular time I wrote My Toxic Reality. I wrote that poem in one night. It was a godsend because the pen just kept flowing and flowing. I started thinking about all of the people that were being impacted. About everything they were breathing. I came up with My Toxic Reality to paint a picture of my world.

What gives you the energy, the spirit, to keep doing this difficult work?

I know there are various religions out there, but I believe in that higher power. The universe, I believe, sometimes helps those with that faith in a higher being. When you put your best foot forward to do good in the world, things come together in a mysterious way.

This work is very gratifying. And I just couldn’t see myself abandoning this community when there’s no end in sight because this is a lifelong mission. You’re always going to have environmental defenders, and you’re going to have environmental polluters. So therefore, I feel this is my life calling.

I watched my own little granddaughter come into the world. She came in breathing fine, but now she’s developed this constant thing she has to do to clear her throat and it frustrates me and it angers me. God continues to strengthen me because every day I realize what I do and why I do it. I do it to help protect human health, to protect the next generation and this generation, and to create a better quality of life for people that have been forgotten in low-income, disadvantaged communities. I believe that I was appointed by a higher being to do this work and I feel more energized now than ever on how to do this work and how to push for change. I’m forever that voice. I am my brother’s keeper.

This article has been edited for clarity and length.

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