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Inside Agitator

by Published on
photo courtesy Hilton Kelley
Hilton Kelley

Following a career in California as an actor and anti-gang activist, Hilton Kelley returned in 2000 to the Port Arthur neighborhood where he grew up, known as the West Side. Kelly had left 20 years earlier, and came back to find his once-thriving hometown increasingly crippled by pollution and neglect. He came back to stand up for those most affected—mainly people of color too poor to relocate and dependent on local oil refineries for jobs.

Kelley’s disenchantment with community groups that had been co-opted by industry prompted him to work independently. In a door-to-door crusade he taught his neighbors how to measure and monitor air quality by using plastic buckets, a system developed by the non-profit group, Global Community Monitor. Air samples are pumped into sealable plastic bags within the buckets and sent to a private lab and tested, and the results have been used to prod regulatory agencies into action. Samples are collected during refinery “upsets,” unplanned events that sometimes result in hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals being released into the neighborhood.

Kelley helped to galvanize an environmental justice movement in Port Arthur. Now he heads Community In-Power & Development Association, a group that works to get the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to investigate air quality violations and enforce the Clean Air Act. In addition, Kelley now serves on the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, created to address human health and environmental concerns in disadvantaged communities.

With the attention Kelley and others have brought the community, the EPA has named Port Arthur an Environmental Justice Showcase Community, a title given to 10 communities across the nation with disproportionate environmental burdens. The agency will award Port Arthur $100,000 over two years to supplement local efforts already in place to “alleviate environmental and human health challenges.” This pilot program will serve as a template for the “design and implementation of future Environmental Justice projects.”

When he’s not taking oil refineries to task, Kelley and his wife own and operate a soul food restaurant called Kelley’s Kitchen in desolate downtown Port Arthur. He hopes it will attract patrons to the once-prosperous city center and give people a meeting place to discuss issues and organize.