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Hilton Kelley: Standing up for the West Side
by Vicki Wolf, 2006

Hilton Kelley’s dream came true when he became a member of the Screen Actors Guild in 1991 as an actor and stuntman while living in Oakland, California. But the direction of his life changed dramatically when he came back to his hometown while working on the movie, “Nash,” with Don Johnson and Cheech Meredith.

Kelley left Port Arthur when he was 19 to join the Navy. When he got out of the Navy in 1984, he moved to Oakland to pursue his acting career. Returning home to Port Arthur in 2000, Kelley was surprised to find the place where he grew up dilapidated and lacking basic services for the people living there. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind that I needed to do something about saving my hometown,” he recalls.

The railroad tracks divide Port Arthur into the east side and the west side. The west side is considered “the wrong side of the tracks” with the low-income housing projects of Carver Terrace, Lewis Manor and Prince Hall. The area had become known as a mini-ghetto and hot spot for trouble and drug activity. “A lot of young people were being incarcerated,” Kelley says. “When you have a dilapidated community with no services and young people with a lot of energy, they want something to do.”

Kelley moved back and decided the best way to serve was to start a community center and get the kids off the streets. Little did he know that more insidious problems lurked over Port Arthur. The first clue came when lifelong resident Alfred Dominic asked Kelley why he wanted to start a community center in such a contaminated area.

Kelley investigated and soon discovered that emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and 1-3 butadiene are released through upsets at refineries including Valero, Chevron Phillips, VASS and Total Petrochemicals USA, all in the vicinity of Port Arthur. Another neighbor, Huntsman Chemicals, also releases benzene in frequent accidents and daily operations in the production of plastics, rubber and various chemicals from the byproducts of crude oil.

“Industry is a backdrop to the community,” Kelley says. “Most of the families are low-income. Many are homeowners with homes that have been in their families for years – they can’t find anything like what they have at the same price,” he adds. “Others are stuck in low-income housing projects.”

Kelley says the industry upsets should not be happening. “We are trying to push industry to clean up emissions and use up-to-date technology to protect this community,” he says. “If that could happen, this could be a good community again. If this can’t happen, they should move these people out of this area.”

To get support and assistance in saving his community, Kelley founded Community In-power Development Association, Inc. (CIDA). They work to get the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to discover violations and enforce the Clean Air Act. CIDA’s efforts include air-monitoring using state-of-the-art Cerex UV air monitors. The monitor sucks air into a box where it goes through UV light to detect how many parts per billion (ppb) of VOCs are in the air. The information goes into a laptop computer, which is connected to the monitor. “Once data is collected, we can build a graph of toxins from most dense to lower density,” Kelley says. “When a cloud stays over a community for hours, you know it is a serious problem.”

CIDA reports the industry violations they discover to the TCEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The TCEQ should monitor this large industry and get them to comply,” Kelley says, “but they are not very involved in enforcement.”

Kelley says even when TCEQ does issue a notice of violation, the company can choose to pay a large fine or participate in a supplemental environmental program (SEP). Industry tends to get by with funding projects that have little to do with protecting citizens for harmful emissions. “I have put forth SEP ideas for monitoring the air, but they never get funded,” Kelley says.

It is disheartening to see what industry gets by with in Port Arthur. “Every time I feel like throwing in the towel, I think about the victories. I think about the things we have done instead of the things we haven’t.”

Victories include reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide Premcor Refineries (now Valero) would have been allowed to dump into the air, for their “Tier II” project, from 225 additional tons down to 125 tons annually. Also, CIDA managed to get the EPA to impose a violation notice against Motiva Enterprises (owned by Shell Oil Company) for failing to report a number of upsets. CIDA requested that the EPA investigate after trying, without success, to get TCEQ to investigate the incidences. The community is now in the process of dealing with the expansion of the Motiva refinery. The refinery currently processes 285,000 barrels of oil a day. After expansion, it will be the largest refinery in the United States and will process 625,000 barrels a day. The community is asking for recovery units to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. They also want the company to be more responsive to the community when there are problems.

Even though refinery reform has had priority since Kelley moved back to his hometown, the community center he first envisioned is now getting about 45 kids off the streets with karate classes, an after-school program and a boxing gym.

On August 29 last year, Kelley’s focus changed to respond to the urgent needs of people who fled New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“I was at home watching TV and saw all these people in distress,” Kelley says. “I felt compelled to drive to New Orleans but my wife reminded me: ‘They can’t get out how do you think you can get in?’”

Kelley found out that hurricane victims were arriving at Ford Park Arena in Beaumont and decided to go there and talk to people. “They talked about how they had lost everything,” Kelley says. “And then we heard about the levees and knew it would be a long time before they were going to go home.”

Kelley sent out a distress call on his list-serve listing needs of the hurricane victims and received a huge response. “I reached out to friends and relatives,” Kelley recalls. “A woman from New York City sent an 18-wheeler with clothing and supplies. We raised $6,000 and helped several families with $100 for gas and personal items. Working with the Shining Star Missionary Church, Kelley went around to hotels in Beaumont to check on people “We found out people were just there and didn’t know what to do,” Kelley says. “We provided clothing and cooked for them.”

In September, Kelley and his family found themselves facing their own crisis as Hurricane Rita headed straight for Port Arthur. When they loaded up the car and headed out of town, he looked in his rearview mirror to see nine other automobiles wagon-training behind him.

“You never know what hand life is going to deal you,” Kelley says. “I’m a God-fearing person, and I believe God will not give you more than you can deal with. If God gives you a challenge, accept it – there is someone you can help.”

Kelley lives in Port Arthur with his wife, Marie Kelley. He has three children who were born in California: two daughters, ages 22 and 16; and a son, age 19. He also has three grown step-children.

Kelley enjoys theater and acting, weight-lifting, and he has a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do. Kelley also enjoys writing poetry. He says, “I write whatever moves me.” Here’s a poem he wrote that expresses what it is like to live with the petrochemical industry in your own backyard:

My Toxic Reality
by Hilton Kelley
Community In-power and Development Association Inc. (C.I.D.A Inc.)

I see your smoke Rising in the air
two, three in the morning when you think no one is there
in the still of the night my child starts to sneeze
in the still of the night the other starts to wheeze
your bright bright torch it burns all night
to find my way through the house I don’t even need a light
the roar of your flame I’ve learned to ignore
even though it’s combustion vibrate my feet upon the floor

I know I live at the back end of town
and I should just be quiet and not make a sound
you might even find this a little profound
but me and my neighbors are a light and dark shade of brown
I hope our leaders don’t conspire to circumvent
because these findings have a sulfur benzene scent
excuse me while I cough, my throat has a slight tickle
the air I breath it smells and sometime very fickle

If you went to take a bath and saw a rash upon your chest
would you shrug your shoulders and wish your self the best
this money they give is great and this is only flesh
but if you had the right insurance you could go and take a test
I’m scared I’ll lose my job if to pollution I contest
but if you died tonight would killers confess
to the poison they put inside you that laid you down to rest
would your family have to fight to pay your doctor bills
as you lay six feet under upon a grassy hill
now your job is gone and your company grieving have faded
your spouse and kids tried to collect from them
but they said your death was not job related

Heroes Update: Hilton Kelley, checking back in on the people we've profiled in the series, People Who Make A Difference to see what they have accomplished since we talked with them and what they are doing today.

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