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KUHF Conversations: Hilton Kelley, 2011 Recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize

A Port Arthur man has been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for North America, which is often described as the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism. Hilton Kelley is the first Texan and first African-American male to win the prize. Kelley was raised in Port Arthur, a town dotted with chemical plants and refineries. He’s being honored for his fight for environmental justice in that community. Wendy Siegle spoke with Kelley about his award.


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Hilton Kelley

Wendy: What does it mean to you to have won this award, an award that’s often called the “Green Nobel Prize”?

Hilton: Wow. I mean, this is really unbelievable. It’s almost like a dream come true. You never think that you would get such a prestigious award. This is something that I’ve done voluntarily because I love, number one my country, and I love the state I live in, and I love the people of my community.

Wendy: You left Port Arthur for California to pursue a career in acting. You were gone for 21 years. Why did you come back?

Hilton: In 2000 I went home to Port Arthur just to visit to go to the Mardi Gras. And when I was there, just to visit friends and relatives, I toured Port Arthur, took a ride around. And what I noticed was that there were a lot of dilapidated buildings, the air still smelled foul with emissions and chemicals from the incinerating facilities and the chemical plants. And I was really disgusted by that. I came back to California, briefly, and I just started writing down things I would do if I still lived in that town, because I was wondering why nobody was doing anything about it. And one morning I was shaving and I was looking at the man in the mirror, and I was thinking to myself how I keep talking about how I no one is doing anything about the conditions in Port Arthur, but yet I’m a Port Arthurin and I wasn’t there doing anything either. So how could I complain? And I made a conscious decision, after having this vision that I believe was god-led, to move back to Port Arthur in 2000. And I got started with trying to look at ways in which I could assist with cleaning up Port Arthur and getting the kids off the street.

Hilton Kelley testing contamination levels near a playground
Hilton Kelley testing contamination levels near a playground

Wendy: Well since then you’ve had a lot of successes, which is why you’re being honored this year. What are some of them?

Hilton: We’ve had some major victories. As a matter of fact, we stopped 20,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, from being imported into the United States for incineration by a French-owned company called Veolia. And that was a major victory because when PCBs are burned, it releases dioxins into the environment, which if inhaled in small particles over a large amount of time it can contribute greatly to cancer and other illnesses within the human body. So our organization stopped the importation of this toxic waste from Mexico to be burned in the United States for U.S. citizens to inhale.

Wendy: What’s your next project, your next environmental fight?

Hilton: Well, the fight we’re dealing with right now, we’re dealing with a learning network system in the city of Port Arthur. We are pushing to try to get an audible system set up in the city of Port Arthur so that no matter where our residents may be, whether they’re in park, or whether they’re in their gardens, or outside with their kids, they don’t have to be near a phone or a television to get a alerting system telling them that there is a problem at one of the facilities. We believe we deserve every tool possible that can help us become aware of an environmental incident where there are gases being released or an explosion and toxic chemicals are being dumped into our community. We deserve every system possible to help us to be informed and educated and alerted.

Wendy: Well, Mr. Kelly, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Hilton: Thank you for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.

That was KUHF’s Wendy Siegle speaking with Hilton Kelley, an environmental activist in Port Arthur. Kelley receives the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco today.

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