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Texas Resident Wins Award for Challenging Oil Refineries

Hilton Kelley won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his work confronting refineries on pollution in the town of Port Arthur, Texas
Hilton Kelley won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his work confronting refineries on pollution in the town of Port Arthur, Texas

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Deborah Block

A resident of Texas has won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award for his work confronting refineries on pollution in the town of Port Arthur.  The city has a population of 60,000 and one of the highest levels of air pollution in the United States.  Hilton Kelley has spent a decade fighting to lower Port Arthur's air pollution through protests and legal action against major oil and chemical companies.  The Goldman award is funded by the family of Richard Goldman, a San Francisco philanthropist who died last year.

Hilton Kelley grew up in a poor, African-American neighborhood.  

"I was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, right next to the refineries," said Kelley.  

Kelley left Port Arthur as a young adult and was living in California.  When he visited his home town in 2000, he was appalled at the condition of his neighborhood.

"People are living at or below the poverty line right next to so much wealth due to lack of jobs, yet we have to bear the brunt of the toxic waste that's emitted from these facilities," said Kelley.

Kelley was working as an actor in California when he decided to take on a new role.  He stayed in Port Arthur to help people living near the refineries.  And he discovered that large amounts of toxins were being released into the air.

"I found that a lot of people were ill, usually cancer-related, and there were a large number of kids with respiratory problems," added Kelley.   

He learned about polices governing industrial pollution, and stepped up to lead the local movement to clean up Port Arthur.

"I noticed when I went back there to visit initially that no one seemed to be doing anything about this problem," recalled Kelley.  "So I decided that I would take it upon myself to do what I could to bring attention to the matter, and start to fight these big polluters head-on to do what I could to get the emission reductions that were needed."

Kelley trained locals to measure air quality.

"I started educating the public on what was going on, and how they were being taken advantage of, and how they were being systematically poisoned," Kelley added.

In 2006, Motiva Enterprises, a subsidiary of the giant Shell Oil company, announced it was expanding its Port Arthur facility.

Kelley convinced Motiva to start a $3.5 million fund to increase pollution controls and promote economic revitalization in the area.

He also led a campaign to stop another company from importing toxic liquids from Mexico for incineration at its Port Arthur plant.

"We did not want that toxic stuff released into our environment and so we fought tooth and nail to get it stopped," said Kelley.

Kelley is one of six environmentalists from different parts of the world who received the annual Goldman Award, along with 150,000 dollars.  He says he will use part of the money to continue his fight.

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