East Texan recognized for green efforts

April 11, 2011 4:46:31 PM PDT
An East Texas activist is $150,000 richer after his work fighting Port Arthur pollution was recognized. Hilton Kelley won the Goldman Prize, sometimes referred to as the 'Green Nobel Prize.'

Just one person in all of North America wins each year, so we visited Kelley in Port Arthur to find out why he won and what we could learn from him here.

Kelley grew up in the shadow of Port Arthur's refineries, and despite moving away as a young man, he never stopped thinking about them. He moved back to Port Arthur nearly 11 years ago when he realized no one was taking care of the air above his hometown.

"People have been beaten down over time to the point where they don't believe they even have rights anymore," he said.

So many of his old neighbors, Kelley thought, had become complacent about his growing pollution concerns.

"You can tell them, but I don't know if they'll listen," said his mother, Thessy Harris.

Kelley, who was honored on Monday with the $150,000 Goldman Prize for environmental activism, knew there was a way to make Port Arthur's big industries listen. At first, it was as simple as a 5-gallon bucket and a hand pump to test potentially toxic air.

"We used it to grab ambient air that's around us to try and identify exactly what type of chemicals ... are in the air at any given time," he said.

Starting in 2001, Kelley took samples with his modified bucket and hand pump, sent them to a lab and results showed air toxic levels higher than industry and the state previously owned up to.

"The state is supposed to do it, but we've learned we can't rely on the state," Kelley said.

And it wasn't just there. Kelley brought his bucket and more recently more high-tech tools to the Houston area, where he says the results were the same.

"We picked up very, very high readings of benzene, which is a known cancer-causing chemical, a carcinogen. It was really off the charts," he said.

In Houston, activists have long complained that state air monitoring is almost non-existent and industry monitoring is too secretive, but once Kelley had his own data, the industry and the state paid attention. He's won emission reductions in Port Arthur and convinced the Motiva Refinery to create a $3.5 million community fund.

"What are our communities? Sacrifice zones for the nation to have clean-burning gasoline and petrochemical products," Kelley said.

The lesson of Kelley's success in Port Arthur is not an easy one. It took years to get his own neighbors to listen, let alone big companies.

"Industry is listening to the Community In-Power Development Association now; it's been a long climb up," he said.

And he is still climbing. When Kelley started his work, he thought it would be a two to three year job. Ten years later, he is still working and doesn't know when it will end.

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