By: Kayleigh Coughlin, Communications Intern

In an interview on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series, Hilton Kelley, Founder and Director of Community In-Power & Development Association (CIDA), shared his experience taking action against the neighboring chemical manufacturers, refineries and incinerator facilities in his hometown of Port Arthur, TX. CIDA is a non-profit organization that helps organize and educate local residents to fight back against corporate polluters and work together to promote healthy change. CIDA was founded in 2000 with the belief that “polluters should be held accountable for the chronic, systematic poisoning of low-income communities living along the ‘fence line’ of their operations.”

Mr. Kelley is a US Navy Veteran turned environmental activist. While Kelley claims to have always cared deeply about others, his road to activism was not planned. In his interview, Kelley described the moment his brief visit home to Port Arthur, TX turned permanent. “I was thrown aback by what I saw. Our downtown area was dilapidated … I went back to California but I kept thinking about my hometown. Someone needed to do something.” Within three months of his visit, Kelley had moved back home to Port Arthur and immediately got to work on his plan to help rebuild his hometown.

Kelley described the effects of ‘white flight’ in Port Arthur, which depleted the community of its school teachers, policemen, businesses, etc. This phenomenon helped lead to the “dilapidation” Kelley spoke about in his community by 2000. Without much-needed resources like banks, members of Kelley’s community had very little political power. Coupled with environmental health threats, given 30% of Jefferson County oil refineries are located in Port Arthur, local residents were under water. Corporations like Premcor, now Valero, claimed their oil refinery emissions were of “no harm” to residents, but Kelley found Premcor and, and a Saudi Arabian refinery, Motiva,  had been out-of-compliance with the Clean Air Act for years. In 2006, CIDA filed a class action lawsuit against Motiva and other out-of-compliance refineries in the area, which resulted in these refineries eventually implementing the proper controls to reduce emissions. The lawsuit’s settlement resulted in the purchase of a mobile medical van to provide on-the-spot medical care and health vouchers to Port Arthur residents. Despite this win, there was some push-back from locals who feared taking on the power of these corporations.

“It’s a really tough job because you’re not only fighting against these out-of-compliance corporations …. You’re also fighting against some of the very people you’re fighting for because they look at you as the villain. They buy into the rhetoric that you’re going to drive these businesses away, and they rely on these jobs.”

Reaching these residents can be tough, but Kelley described the effectiveness of framing the issue around family. When you tell people that emissions are hurting not only them, but their children and their grandchildren, they begin to see the issue in a new light. The impacts borne by Port Arthur families cannot be ignored. One in five households in Port Arthur is affected by emission-related illnesses, like cancer. And many families in the area lack resources to receive proper medical treatment for their illnesses, said Kelley. “After a while, you just stop counting and start fighting.” 

CIDA’s fight has resulted in numerous wins for Port Arthur, such as negotiating with Premcor for restitutions to community members in 2005, stopping 20,000 tons of PCBs from being shipped to Port Arthur for incineration in 2009, and much more. To learn more about CIDA’s fight in Port Arthur and neighboring communities, visit https://www.cidainc.org.