Welcome to West Port Arthur, Texas, Ground Zero in the Fight for Climate Justice
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
Hilton Kelley stood smiling in the clear April sunshine outside Kelley’s Kitchen in the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, Texas, and extended a hand. Kelley, 53, is a big-framed man, with generous, gentle eyes and white stubble. The sign on the small corner restaurant reads Delicious Home-Cooked Food, but Kelley’s Kitchen is no longer serving. Kelley opened the place up in his beloved hometown in 2010 and managed to keep it running for about two and a half years. “It was going fairly well,” he told me. “But, you know, the town really doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic on this side of Port Arthur anymore.”
Kelley’s Kitchen is the only structure left standing on its section of Austin Avenue, just two blocks from the main downtown thoroughfare. In every direction are more vacant lots and dilapidated buildings—windows blown out, many of them empty for years, even decades. In the bright sun, the streets at midday on a Friday were ghostly quiet.
“This area was once a thriving community,” Kelley said. “It was traffic up and down Austin Avenue here.”
He invited me inside, out of the glare, and we sat at one of the tables in the well-kept place, which he now rents out for private parties and special occasions—there’s even a small dance floor complete with shiny disco ball. But that’s not all that goes on at Kelley’s Kitchen. The space doubles as the office of the Community In-Power & Development Association, or CIDA—the small, tough, grassroots community advocacy and environmental justice organization that Kelley founded in 2000, soon after returning to Port Arthur from California, where he was working in the movie industry as an actor and stunt man. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his environmental justice activism. Kelley has testified before the Texas Legislature and the US Senate, addressed UNESCO in Paris, and met President Obama at the White House.
Just a few blocks from where we sat is the historic African-American community of West Port Arthur, where Kelley was born and raised in the Carver Terrace housing project, on the fence line of two massive oil refineries—one owned by Valero (formerly Gulf Oil) and the other by Motiva (formerly Texaco). In fact, the recently completed expansion of the Motiva refinery, which Kelley’s group fought hard against, makes it the largest in the nation, having more than doubled its capacity to 600,000 barrels of crude per day. Nearby are five more petrochemical plants and the Veolia incinerator facility. Port Arthur is on the receiving end of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the southern leg of which—cutting through East Texas communities—went operational in January. But the industry brings few jobs to West Port Arthur, where unemployment is over 15 percent. Workers commute to the plants, and economic development has moved north since the 1980s, along with white flight, to the newer Mid-County area along Highway 69 toward Nederland, where you’ll find a sudden explosion of malls, big-box stores, hotels and theme restaurants with busy parking lots.
And yet the economic abandonment of the downtown area and West Port Arthur, in the very shadow of the world’s richest industry, isn’t even the whole story—there’s also the pollution, some of the most toxic in the country. “One in five West Port Arthur households has someone in it with a respiratory illness,” Kelley said. “One in five.” The county’s cancer mortality rate, according to a recent study, is 25 percent higher than the state average. Toxic “events”—whether from gas flares or accidents—are common, Kelley told me: emissions often darkening the sky, fumes wafting into the neighborhood. The community is downwind of several of the refineries nearby. “If one isn’t flaring or smoking, another one is,” Kelley said. “At least twice a month, we’re going to get some flaring and smoke from one of them.” As much as he can, he documents the events. “Sometimes it’ll be really pungent, to the point where it stings the nose and eyes.”
But apart from these incidents, he added, there’s the constant day-to-day toxic menace in the air. “It’s not always what you see—it’s what you don’t see. A lot of these gases are very dangerous. Sometimes newcomers will smell it and we can’t, because we’re desensitized to it.”
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Kelley had offered to show me around Port Arthur and give me the fence-line tour on the west side, the community where he grew up. I knew about his accomplishments with CIDA—among other things, how they’d successfully pressured both Motiva and Valero, the former to install state-of-the-art equipment to reduce toxic emissions and pay for a community development center, and the latter to fund a new health clinic. And I understood that CIDA is more than an environmental justice group: its mission is to educate, empower and revitalize the community, working especially with young people. I knew that Kelley has made a real difference since returning home.
But before we left Kelley’s Kitchen, I needed to ask him about another threat—one that, given Port Arthur’s economic and racial marginalization, its proximity to dangerous petrochemical infrastructure, and its location on the gulf, could ultimately be the most devastating of all.
Yes, he answered, “we are seeing some of the impacts of climate change around here, as a matter of fact.” The rising sea level has washed out parts of Highway 87 between Port Arthur and Galveston. “They’ve abandoned the road,” Kelley said. And the ferocity of hurricanes, from Katrina and Rita to Ike, has shaken even Port Arthur natives like him. They were spared the worst of Katrina, “but Rita came very soon after that, and that’s when we got hit hard,” Kelley said. “I mean, a lot of the houses are gone. You can still see the FEMA tarps on some of the roofs today. A lot of homes that were once inhabited are now abandoned, because the federal dollars didn’t come in soon enough and the houses just dry-rotted.” The residents of Port Arthur haven’t faced the kind of epic flooding that was seen in New Orleans, but with Hurricane Ike they came close. “Ike brought in a huge surge, and it reached right to the top of our hundred-year levee but didn’t breach it.” Even so, the roof of Kelley’s old office was torn off: “The rain just poured in and destroyed everything.”