Fight against pollution earns plant neighbor environmental award

Native son Hilton Kelley will get Green Nobel for grass-roots environmentalism. By Matthew Tresaugue, Houston Chronicle.

PORT ARTHUR, Texas — The public housing project where Hilton Kelley was born and raised sits in the shadows of two refineries that belch toxic chemicals into the air.

His mother moved him away from Carver Terrace long ago, but he is still here, waging what seems to be a one-man crusade in one of America's most polluted places. With many of this Gulf Coast town's poorest residents suffering from asthma, skin irritations and cancer, he has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

So for the past decade he has pushed and prodded, with a bit of shouting, mostly by him, for more restrictions on industrial construction and stricter monitoring of plant emissions.
And now, what once seemed like a quixotic pursuit — greater environmental and public health protections in a refinery town - no longer seems so quixotic.

"Port Arthur has been a dumping ground for years because this was the area of least resistance," Kelley says. "But this is a new day."

For his work, Kelley is one of the 2011 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, sometimes called the Green Nobel as the highest honor of its kind for grass-roots environmentalists.
He will be in San Francisco today to receive the award, given annually to an environmentalist from each continent, and the $150,000 check that goes with it. Past winners have sought justice for victims of environmental disasters at Love Canal and Bhopal, India, resisted oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and tried to prevent the U.S. military from incinerating chemical weapons.

Film, TV in California

The 50-year-old Kelley came to environmentalism late and without any training in community organizing. He left Port Arthur for the U.S. Navy in 1979 and later settled in Oakland, where he worked as a stuntman and extra on movies and television shows filmed in the San Francisco Bay area, including CBS's Nash Bridges.

During a visit for Mardi Gras in 2000, Kelley saw his once-vibrant hometown in a relentless decline - its storefronts shuttered, its fields filled with rusty debris, its residents sick and its children with nothing to do. He returned to life in California, but not for long.
"I didn't see anyone doing anything about it," he said. "And then one day I looked in the mirror and said, 'I'm from Port Arthur. What am I doing about it?'"

Kelley recognized that the town could not pull itself back up without addressing the environmental problems first, but he knew change would not come easy in a community dependent on refineries and chemical plants for jobs. One of his early protests outside City Hall attracted only two people, and one was his brother.

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