Former Hollywood actor now fights polluters on Texas' Gulf Coast

August 1, 2021


Hilton Kelley seeks environmental justice for sick, vulnerable people

When Hollywood actor and stuntman Hilton Kelley visited his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, in 2000 after 20 years away, he was taken aback by how much the Gulf Coast community had deteriorated since his youth. In the city's socioeconomically depressed west side especially, businesses and services had closed, kids were playing in parks near gang strongholds, and an alarming number of people were ill with chronic disease.

Environmental activist Hilton Kelley is seen in front of the TPC Group chemical plant near Port Arthur, Texas. Multiple explosions at the plant in November 2019 caused injuries to nearby residents, damaged property and necessitated a mandatory evacuation around a 4-mile radius that included Port Neches, Groves, Nederland and part of Port Arthur.

He said that a source of much of the decline — particularly when it came to the health of west side community members — was the close proximity to petrochemical and other heavy industrial companies. The emissions the facilities spew into the air were causing respiratory problems and skin irritation. Kelley also believes the toxins increase the incidence of certain cancers, heart disease and lung disease, but to his knowledge research has not been conducted to establish causality.

Kelley said he moved back to Port Arthur to defend the community against environmental injustice and to work to promote the health and well-being of its citizens. He's spent two decades engaging the community in tracking the companies' emission events, urging regulatory involvement and initiating legal action. At the same time, he and an organization he founded and still runs have been investing in community revitalization.

"I think it's up to all of us to do what we can to save the children, save the babies, save our elderly. And to help make this world a better place for everyone," Kelley said during a March 16 webinar sponsored by CHA and the Catholic Climate Covenant.

Fence-line community
Shortly after his move back to Texas' Gulf Coast, Kelley founded the nonprofit advocacy and community investment organization Community In-Power and Development Association. Seven people — many of them Kelley family members — make up the core paid team at the organization and about 250 people support the nonprofit through volunteerism, he said.

Kelley said west Port Arthur is a "fence-line community," a designation that environmental justice advocates and some regulators define as areas where low-income populations, mostly people of color, are subject to noise, smells and potentially hazardous emissions emanating from petrochemical and other industrial companies. Companies in west Port Arthur include Chevron Phillips Chemical, Motiva Enterprises, Oxbow Carbon and Valero petrochemical companies, the German Pellets wood chip storage facility and the Veolia North America waste incineration site. Petrochemical companies Total, BASF and Indorama Ventures are on Port Arthur's east end.

The Motiva oil refinery is to the north and diesel pollution wafts from the shipping channel in southern Port Arthur. Kelley said between the companies and the ships, west Port Arthur residents are "boxed in" among numerous potential polluters.

Kelley and other community members keep a close eye on these companies, photographing evidence of potential violations of emission regulations and logging air quality readings they provide to substantiate complaints to state and federal environmental regulators.

When the flare stacks of petrochemical companies belch a dense black smoke, Kelley said, that indicates they are burning off carbon-based fuel. The emissions contain toxic particulates that "rain down" on west side residences as oily soot, coating homes and yards. Kelley and other community members have documented emission events with trails of black smoke stretching for miles over the city and emissions lasting for days.

In 2017, smoldering wood pellets at the German Pellets storage site caused a combustion that sent soot billowing over west Port Arthur for 70 days. There have been explosions at petrochemical plants that have rocked homes and shattered windows.

Kelley and the Community In-Power and Development Association have sued some of the companies. He said legal wins include securing from Motiva plant upgrades that reduce harmful emissions and ensuring seed funding for social and economic redevelopment in west Port Arthur and another distressed neighborhood through a Port Arthur Communities Fund. Kelley said he and other local activists also helped prevent the Veolia company from importing hazardous waste from Mexico for incineration in Port Arthur.

Kelley said his goal is not to shut down companies — the petrochemical industry is the financial lifeblood of Port Arthur — but to hold them accountable for adhering to environmental regulations put in place to protect people's health.

Human cost
In a May 3, 2019, article, "The Health Consequences of Weak Regulation: Evidence from Excess Emissions in Texas," on the SSRN research platform, analysts said, "excess emissions in Texas could be responsible for at least $150 million in annual health damages from increased concentrations of primary and secondary" particulate matter.

Kelley said in west Port Arthur the evidence of health damage is overwhelming among residents, many of whom are Black and poor. A large percentage of children need breathing treatments including nebulizers several times a day. Kelley said he has lost count of the cancer deaths. His best friend died of a cancer earlier this year that Kelley said could have been caused by environmental pollution.

Grassroots activism
Kelley frequently is tapped as an expert to assist fence-line communities fighting environmental pollution beyond the Gulf Coast. He has testified before Congress about the impact of pollution on vulnerable communities.

He's organized protests, collaborated with grassroots community groups on projects, spoken at churches and started skill-building and jobs programs for Port Arthur youth. He's assembled a "Helping Hands" volunteer corps to undertake projects that restore the community — they were busy clearing tree limbs off houses after late 2020 hurricanes, for instance.

Kelley said companies are drawn to Port Arthur because of the relatively low level of environmental pushback. "It's the area of least resistance." Given that, he said, empowering the community to speak and act in its own interest is essential to addressing environmental injustice.

"We don't have a voice sitting at the table when it comes to city council. We don't have a voice on the federal level. We don't have a voice on the state level and this is why the Community In-Power and Development Association was born — to give our city, to give our community a voice."

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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