This piece was cross posted at Think, Act, Parent.
Dear Mr. Hilton Kelley,
Congratulations on your recognition as a one of the 2011 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize is often referred to as the “green Nobel Prize.” It is awarded to six individuals from around the world whose extraordinary grassroots efforts protect the planet. You are a hero, an inspiration and beyond well-deserving of such an honor.
I applaud you for your commitment. As I understand the reports, you came home to celebrate Mardi Gras just to find Port Arthur’s West side, home predominantly to African-Americans and eight major industrial plants, in an aggressive downward economic spiral. You knew that behind your city’s failure to thrive was the slew of refineries and what their emissions are doing to the residents there. You returned from the comfort of your California lifestyle to take on a herculean effort.
According to the Washington Post, you returned to Port Arthur to discover that the air of your city still had that distinctive odor that you and your friends in your youth called “the smell of money.” That smell came from emissions from the refineries that, back in the day, represented the best sources for jobs and local prosperity. But that smell also represents the increase in occurrences of premature death and chronic illness due to cancer, childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments. The cost for those jobs and that prosperity was too high.
I applaud you for your tenacity. You decided shortly after your visit that since there was no one to step up and fight for the survival of your town, it had to be you. And so, incredibly, you moved back, and you took on the fight. And you became known as the man who “doesn’t give up”, who won’t take no for an answer, and who has made an enormous positive impact on environmental protections for Port Arthur. The list of your accomplishments is awe-inspiring:
1. You successfully negotiated a deal with an expanding refinery that included new pollution controls and a $3.5 million fund to support small businesses and provide health coverage for residents of Port Arthur’s west side.
2. You stopped the shipment of 20,000 tons of highly toxic PCBs from Mexico for disposal at a nearby incinerator.
3. Under your leadership, community activists have attracted the attention of the EPA who has named Port Arthur an Environmental Justice Showcase Community. This is a title given to 10 communities across the nation with disproportionate environmental burdens. The agency will award Port Arthur $100,000 over two years to supplement local efforts already in place to ‘alleviate environmental and human health challenges.’ This pilot program will serve as a template for the ‘design and implementation of future Environmental Justice projects.’ (see Inside Agitator, Texas Observer.org)
Thank you, Mr. Kelley, on behalf of all people, and particularly people of color, for your vision and your relentless representation of the poor and disenfranchised—for your pursuit of social and environmental justice. Thank you for being a model and a stalwart beacon of hope not just for the people on the west side of Port Arthur, but for all communities who are suffering at the hands of polluters with little to no resources to make life better for themselves and their families.
And finally, thank you for reminding us all that, though not everyone can do what you do, everyone can do something!
You stand with the other Goldman Environmental Prize awardees as an international hero. And I stand with you as a Texan, determined to do more and do better!