Goldman Environmental Prize Awards $150K to Clean Air Activism on the Gulf Coast


Image: Goldman Environmental Prize

This year's North American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize has been spending more than a decade working in his Texas Gulf Coast community to fight for stronger environmental regulations, better enforcement of existing regulations, and to improve relations generally between the community, industry, and local government. He has worked with the EPA [PDF], served on its National Environmental Justice Advisory Council [PDF], and his town of Port Arthur has been selected as an EPA national showcase city.

I talked to Hilton Kelley over the weekend about these efforts and some of their accomplishments over the years. Here are the highlights of what he had to say.TreeHugger: You returned to Port Arthur, your hometown, to become active in environmental and community issues after being away for a number of years. What were some of the things you found when you first started looking into existing environmental regulations?
Hilton Kelley: What we found was that there was a serious lack of enforcement on behalf of our state regulatory agency.

When I started, it was under the Bush administration. Bush had weakened the EPA dramatically by cutting funding and giving them inadequate manpower to police these facilities. He had taken away the EPA's power and ability to go after polluters who were violating on a federal level.

There was serious lack of enforcement by the EPA, and by the state agency as well, which in our case is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

What were some of your first actions?
Basically, we went after the EPA. We pushed those guys to step up their enforcement actions and to at least try to get these industries to obey the Clean Air Act. We pointed out there were laws that were being broken and we showed how those industries were dumping tons and tons of illegal emissions, by taking our own air samples.

Once we shared that information with the EPA and with the state, we had them where we wanted them—because they had to stand up and do something, even though they dragged their feet.

Again, this was under the Bush administration. Once the Obama administration stepped in, Lisa Jackson showed a strong commitment to cleaning up the environment and enforcing the laws and regulations that govern the polluters, and things started to turn around.

Are there areas in which you are still frustrated under the current administration?
I feel frustrated in the area of learning network systems. I feel that the industries in our communities can do more to protect us in the event of a toxic release.

We think that industries need to take a more precautionary approach when it comes to protecting communities, instead of waiting until after the fact.

In the case of our state, we're living in the belly of the beast. Texas is still an energy state, and we have a ways to go when it comes to our state regulatory agency. I'm not very happy about that. They can step up their efforts when it comes to enforcement and regulation.

We've also urged the EPA to step up and try to help communities like Port Arthur and to do more to bring collaboration between the industries and our local government and the EJ [environmental justice] groups.

Can you talk a little about the "good neighbor" agreement with Motiva? Were you happy with it; are there any ways in which you feel it fell short?
The agreement that we made set a precedent. From what I understand from my attorney, no community has ever won so much in a contested case, which we had filed. So we looked at it as a major victory. We got $3.5 million for our community, we had healthcare for everyone in the impacted community for three years, we got them to put in a job training facility to train the locals in every true sense of the word, and we got them to put in flare gas recovery units and sulfur recovery units.

So we're very excited about those victories—you could always ask for more and push for more, but we're happy with those victories. We're not out of the woods yet, but we're better off than we've been in the past.

Your bio says that early on in your activism, you realized that Port Arthur's environmental problems had to be addressed before its economic and social issues could be dealt with. Do you feel that's a universal lesson?
I do feel it's universal. Across the nation, you have communities like Port Arthur that are dealing with refineries and chemical plants and incinerator facilities that are releasing tons and tons of legal and illegal emissions into the communities. In either case, they all have a serious impact on the people and environment that they're being dumped in.

It sounds like you have really solid support from the community in your activism. Was it always that way? What were the early days like?
It took a lot of years to educate people, to show them where we were coming from. We were trying to make sure the communities were protected, as well as the workers that worked at those facilities. We wanted to show them that we were there to ensure that future generations could have a clean environment to live in and clean water to drink.
How we were pushing to reduce the emissions they were being exposed to. And people have come to appreciate and respect what we do, but it took some years to get there.

It was myself and three others at first. It was real difficult to get people to attend meetings. But we invited them, provided food, talked to them about their personal issues first. When you deal with people on a more personal level, and show some concern for their personal issues, then you can start talking about helping them in a more holistic manner and about cleaning up the environment and communities. But until you start talking to them on a more personal level, it's difficult to try to get them to weigh in on a campaign.

Is that the advice you'd offer other activists starting out?
Yes, definitely. Start with the more personal issues first. And if I would advise anything else, it would be to—if you know that you're right, always be sure to gather the data. Get your facts, line up all your ducks in a row, and don't give up. Be persistent.

Can you talk about the time you spent on the EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council?
I served two terms on that. That was pretty exciting, and I think it helped us to gain a lot of ground. Not only in the city of Port Arthur, but in cities all along the Gulf coast.
I think my tenure helped to put a spotlight on the Gulf. Lisa Jackson recently selected 10 communities from around the nation to become EPA showcase communities. Port Arthur was selected, so we're excited about that.

By being on the council, I was able to have a bigger voice at the EPA's house. Through my advocacy, they were able to get a clearer picture as to what was happening in communities like Port Arthur. And we demonstrated, I believe, that there's a serious need for communication between the EJ groups and the industries and local government. Because many times, local government helps industries to circumvent our efforts.

By pointing that out, I can talk openly and freely to our local government and industry and tell them where they're wrong—while EPA is sitting there at the table. And they can prove me wrong if they choose to do so, but many times they tend to agree, and say, 'well, we need to work on that.' So although we're at the table now, there's still a lot of work to be done.

More on the Goldman Environmental Prize:
One Tenacious Woman Makes Headway Against Factory Farms in Michigan
Goldman Prize Winner Thuli Makama Defends Conservation Against Private Interests in Swaziland
Cuban Folk Singer Wins Goldman Environmental Prize

Tags: Activism | Air Pollution | Awards | Communities | EPA | Goldman Environmental Prize | Texas