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.
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In May 2000, he came home for good.Skip to next paragraph
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"My California friends said, 'You're crazy to leave here and go back to that little town,'" he recalls, his voice booming against the walls of the soul food restaurant he's renovating downtown. "I got back and people said, 'Man, what you come back for? Ain't nothin' here.' "
But there was something – pollution. Lots of it. More than three-quarters of the residents had respiratory ailments. Cancer rates were 20 percent higher than the state average. Nearly every day, toxic chemicals like benzene, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide were dumped into the air in unplanned "emission events."
Instead of encouraging people to stay, he wondered, maybe he should be telling them to leave. He decided to educate himself on environmental issues. He met activists in other states. He learned how to measure pollution levels and test the air for hazardous chemicals.
Slowly, the situation changed. Today, he's on good terms with most of the petrochemical plant officials and is welcome to tour their facilities. A dialogue has begun.
"I wouldn't say we're holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya' just yet, but we have better communication," he says.
Leslie Fields, environmental justice director for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., spent eight years in Texas and nominated Kelley for the Goldman prize. She says what impresses her most is his ability to gain allies on a sensitive subject.
"He's had to walk a very fine line taking these kinds of positions in these communities, because [petrochemicals are] the economic base," Mrs. Fields says. "He's really part of a renaissance."
Kelley has earned a few enemies along the way. He shrugs it off and keeps talking, keeps testing, keeps moving. He works to draw nonprofits and businesses downtown. No matter what he's doing, he keeps a close eye on his industrial neighbors.
"Someone has to be at the gate to protect the ... treasures that support and sustain our lives," he says. "Without air, we die. Water you can't drink is like not having water at all. With contaminated land, you can't grow food. Fighting for our natural resources to be uncontaminated is one of the most important fights there is."
Every day is a new battle, but California no longer calls to him. At night, he opens his windows, listens to the crickets, and breathes easy, happy in his decision to write a new script for Port Arthur's future.