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Difference Maker

Hilton Kelley helps clean up Texas Gulf Coast town

Hilton Kelley balances fighting air pollution with job creation and talking with chemical and oil companies in Port Arthur, Texas.

By Carmen K. Sisson/ Correspondent / April 18, 2011

Hilton Kelley stands on a playground in front of the Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. Kelley has just received a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to fight pollution in the community. He left a burgeoning career in Hollywood in 2000 and moved back to his hometown after seeing its plight.

Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright

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Port Arthur, Texas

Three girls watch as the tall, well-dressed man strides down the cracked sidewalk, across the playground, through the weeds, past the swings, and toward a merry-go-round that might have once been blue but is now a tired gray.

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They seem wary here in the shadows of the housing projects and petrochemical plants that make up their world. Life on the west side of Port Arthur, Texas, is hard; street smarts come early by necessity.

Hilton Kelley grew up in the same squat brick building where they live; breathed the same fetid air; dodged the same haze of pollution, crime, and poverty. As a teenager, he settled scores with his fists. Now he fights with words and a five-gallon bucket used for testing the air, making sure Port Arthur's chemical plants and oil refineries – some 70 in all – follow the law.

Mr. Kelley has won a lot of victories in 11 years. In 2000, he formed the Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA) to collect data on pollution levels. He stormed corporate shareholder meetings and distributed photographs of Port Arthur children wearing respirators.

Armed with air samples and statistics, he took on the Motiva refinery – separated from the girls' playground by only a chain-link fence – and secured a $3.5 million settlement for the community.

When Motiva decided to increase production from 285,000 barrels of oil a day to 625,000 barrels, making it the largest refinery in the United States, he pushed for flame and sulfur recovery units to cut down on dangerous emissions.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency named Port Arthur a "showcase community," awarding $100,000 to help the city meet its environmental and health challenges. This month, Kelley will accept a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts.

But though plenty of people are aware of what Kelley does, fewer understand why. He had a burgeoning career as a stuntman and actor in Oakland, Calif. He was inducted into the Screenwriters Guild in 1991 and worked with actor Don Johnson. Then, he walked away from it all.

In February 2000, he returned to Port Arthur for Mardi Gras and stumbled into a nightmare. The once-bustling streets were pocked with holes. The heavens glowed eerily orange at night as flares from refineries shot into the sky, raining noxious, toxic particulates. The air reeked of chemicals.

He walked the streets, noting what he thought was needed: jobs, a diverse economic base, and a social infrastructure.

Over the next three months, he took the bus from California to Texas 18 times. As he rode, he honed his plan.

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