Goldman Environmental Prize goes to Texas man who took on refineries over pollution

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that a small renew­able-energy utility in the town of Schonau, Germany, uses natural gas along with wind power for its customers. The company uses renewable energy such as wind and solar power; it does not use natural gas, which is not renewable. This version has been corrected.

They call Port Arthur gasoline alley, cancer alley, and the armpit of Texas. For most of his life, Hilton Kelley has called it home.

The city has had the same distinctive odor since he was a boy, Kelley said. Adults jokingly called it the smell of money, because the nearby oil refineries and petrochemical plants did most of the hiring. But after the cancer rate grew, the childhood asthma rate rose and the population plummeted, Kelley, now 50, stopped laughing.

Kelley’s decade-long fight to lower the city’s air pollution earned him this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize for the North America category, being awarded Monday in San Francisco.

The annual prize and a $150,000 stipend is routinely awarded to six grass-roots environmentalists from different parts of the world. Since the award was established in 1990, a total of $13.2 million has been awarded to 139 recipients from 79 countries, as of 2010, according to a spokeswoman.

In addition to Kelley, the other 2011 winners are a mother of five who started Germany’s first community-owned renewable-energy utility company; a Salvadoran farmer who’s risking his life to fight a gold mining operation; an Indonesian biologist whose efforts to clean a river spared millions from drinking toxins; a Zimbabwean who fought to save the black rhino from extinction; and a Russian who monitors petroleum companies on an ecologically rich island.

Kelley is an accidental environmentalist. He left Port Arthur for a Navy stint in 1980 and remained in California for 20 years, working part of the time as a Hollywood stuntman. While visiting his home town, 90 miles east of Houston on the Gulf Coast, for its annual Mardi Gras festival in February 2000, he was deeply troubled by what he saw.

“It was just very dismal. It was mind-numbing,” Kelley said last week in a telephone interview. “The town needed to be awakened.”

The city and surrounding Jefferson County had one of the highest levels of air pollution in the country and suffered from cancer rates that were 23 percent higher than the state average, according to the Texas Cancer Registry. Health officials said many children in Port Arthur had respiratory problems, according to organizers of the prize.

Kelley knew next to nothing about clean-air standards. But within months, he educated himself on public policy, gathered leaders and old school buddies in the African American community, started an organization called the Community In-Power and Development Association in May 2000, and put 70 refineries and chemical plants in the area on notice.

Kelley harassed Shell Oil with protests and legal action. He even traveled to the Hague to demonstrate outside one of the oil giant’s corporate meetings. He “was able to expose the oil industry’s lax protocols and made the companies accountable in a way they never were before,” the prize’s organizers said.

In 2006, Motiva Enterprises, a subsidiary of Shell Oil and billed as the largest refinery in the nation, was persuaded to start a $3.5 million community fund as part of a Good Neighbor Agreement to promote economic revitalization and improve pollution controls. The next year, activists led by Kelley ended a corporation’s plan to import from Mexico 20,000 tons of toxic liquids that were banned by the federal government and incinerate them at its Port Arthur hazardous-waste plant.

“A lot has changed,” Kelley said. “Even though we have a long way to go, it’s better than it was. They’ve reduced the amount of flaring that shoots fire from a smokestack for days. They’re updating antiquated equipment. Enforcement has been stepped up by the state. They know people are watching.”

Not everyone in Port Arthur was supportive, Kelley said. He said he engaged in shouting matches with a former mayor who thought Kelley’s efforts would chase away the companies and jobs.

Kelley “was up against four other people who were finalists for North America” for the prize, said Lorrae Rominger, the Goldman group’s deputy director. He won because “his community had almost been destroyed from the pollution, which was the reason people were moving out. It was the children’s health. He did something that affected thousands of people.”

The other winners are:

l  Ursula Sladek, 54, a German mother who founded Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future after she was shaken by the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. The organization developed into Germany’s first community-owned utility, powering 100,000 customers in the town of Schonau with renewable energy such as wind and solar power. Sladek’s goal is to reach a million customers by 2015.

l  Francisco Pineda, 45, a Salvadoran farmer who’s fighting to stop Pacific Rim, a Canadian gold mining company, from damaging the nation’s water supply by using cyanide that is flowing into the Rio Lempa, according to news reports and the prize’s organizers. As a result of Pineda’s efforts, the government suspended Pacific Rim’s exploration permits in 2008.

l  Prigi Arisandi, 34, the Indonesian leader of an effort to protect 3 million island inhabitants from 74 tons of waste that flows into the Surabaya River. Arisandi grew up playing in the river. He founded two organizations, one of which spawned an activist network against water pollution and another that taught children to monitor water quality and report problems to the government.

l  Raoul du Toit, 53, a Zimbabwean who helped save the black rhino from the kind of political unrest and poaching that have devastated animal species in neighboring countries. Now he is working to save white rhinos in Zambia and Botswana that are hunted for their prized horns.

l  Dmitry Lisitsyn, 42, a Russian conservationist who is working to protect the rich natural resources of Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk from petroleum exploration. Lisitsyn has closely monitored development by Sakhalin Energy and has lobbied the government to place tighter restrictions on the company. When the energy company’s seismic testing disturbed the gray whale’s breeding season, Lisitsyn persuaded it to conduct the tests at a different time of year.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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