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Fenceline Communities on Gulf Coast Face Mass Displacement & Toxic Pollution One Month After Harvey

StorySeptember 26, 2017
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As many parts of the United States recover from a devastating series of hurricanes, we end today’s show with an update from one of the hardest-hit communities along the Gulf Coast. Port Arthur, Texas, is a fenceline community with several massive oil refineries that flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Just last week, a fire at the Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur released nearly 1 million pounds of emissions into the air, prompting residents to stay in their homes for hours. Meanwhile, the 3,600-acre Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur says it plans to continue a multibillion-dollar expansion of its facility, which is already the largest in the United States. This comes as hundreds of displaced Port Arthur residents whose homes were flooded during the storm continue to live in tents. We speak with environmental justice activist Hilton Kelley, who made history in 2011 when he became the first African-American man to win the “Green Nobel Prize”—the Goldman Environmental Prize. Kelley is the executive director and founder of the Community In-Power and Development Association. His restaurant and home were both flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As many parts of the continental United States and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico recover from a devastating series of hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, Maria—we end today’s show with an update from one of the hardest-hit communities along the Gulf Coast: Port Arthur, Texas, a fenceline community with several massive oil refineries that flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Just last week, a fire at the Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur released nearly 1 million pounds of emissions into the air, prompting residents to stay in their homes for hours. Meanwhile, the 3,600-acre Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, that is run by Saudi Arabia, says it plans to continue a multibillion-dollar expansion of its facility, which is already the largest in the United States. This comes as hundreds of displaced Port Arthur residents, whose homes were flooded during the storm, continue to live in tents. And a number of Port Arthur residents who were renting and had to evacuate have been evicted.

For more, we’re joined by environmental justice activist Hilton Kelley, up from Port Arthur. He made history in 2011 when he became the first African-American man to win the “Green Nobel Prize,” the Goldman Environmental Prize. Kelley is the executive director and founder of the Community In-Power and Development Association. His restaurant and home were both flooded during the hurricane. We last spoke with him on the phone just after the storm as he was helping save people. He joins us now in studio after attending a climate summit here in New York run by the Hip Hop Caucus.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to meet you in person, Hilton Kelley.

HILTON KELLEY: Thank you for having me, Amy. I appreciate being here.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you facing in Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, what we’re facing in Port Arthur, Texas, number one, is mass evacuations of our renters. We’re also facing Superfund sites. We’re also facing—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Superfund sites are.

HILTON KELLEY: Well, a Superfund site is an area that’s been deemed uninhabitable due to contamination of some type of toxin. And most of the time in our area, it’s petroleum waste or petroleum material that has been discarded in some shape, form or fashion, and it has rendered the land uninhabitable.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going. What else?

HILTON KELLEY: And so, with that being said, many of our people are being displaced. I mean, there’s a lot of danger when you live in a situation like this. And also, we’re dealing with a situation with our elderly, in our community and in other communities around Port Arthur, Texas, where many people’s homes that were flooded, these folks were right at their 30-year mortgage payment, where they was about to be done with that. And now they’re having to start over because FEMA is offering them a loan instead of some kind of grant opportunity. And basically, most of the people in Port Arthur has been abandoned by FEMA. The Red Cross has reached its limit. And many people were in lines trying to get their $400 check, and now that’s gone. I mean, I’ve gotten thousands of phone calls and emails saying that “We need help now,” to this day. And the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is just starting to show its ugly head.

AMY GOODMAN: How many Superfund sites, how many refineries are there in Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, I think we have somewhere around 15 to 16 Superfund sites in Port Arthur. And Port Arthur is—

AMY GOODMAN: These are toxic sites.

HILTON KELLEY: These are toxic sites, land that you cannot build on anymore, and even some waterfronts.

AMY GOODMAN: That flooded.

HILTON KELLEY: Yes. And so, when you have a Superfund site that’s already contaminated, and then it’s exacerbated by a hurricane, what you have is debris or material that may spill into the communities and get into the floodwaters. And as you walk through those floodwaters, of course, you’re being contaminated with petroleum products, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened in Valero. I mean, we were showing your own video of what took place there.

HILTON KELLEY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is Valero?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, Valero is an oil refinery located right in the historic African-American community. And what happened that particular day, from my understanding, is that there was some kind of a spark that ignited this fuel storage tank. It’s what you’re watching burning. And the fuel storage tank exploded. I mean, when it exploded, it rattled windows for about a mile. My brother lives within a quarter of a mile from that facility, and he called me immediately. He said, “Man, I believe one of the plants just exploded.” And so I rushed to the scene, and, of course, I pulled out my camera and started to film and take photos of the incident.

But yet, this is—a storage tank exploding is somewhat uncommon in our area, but there are constant emissions due to shutdowns and startup emissions, and also due to incidents that take place whenever they lose power. We see a lot of black smoke. We see fire at night, all through the night sometimes, 14-hour burns, or two- or three-day burns at the Motiva plant. Or if it’s not the Motiva plant, it’s the Chevron chemical.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the largest plant in the United States?

HILTON KELLEY: Yes, Motiva oil refinery is the largest oil refinery in the Northern Hemisphere. These guys put out 625,000 barrels of oil per day. So, on any given day, we’re going to get our daily dose of sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, 1,3-butadiene, which is a known carcinogen. And we have a disproportionate number of people in Port Arthur that are suffering with cancer, that are suffering with respiratory issues.

AMY GOODMAN: This is plant run by Saudi Arabia?

HILTON KELLEY: Yes, this is 100 percent Saudi-owned. And we want to encourage the Saudi prince, the Saudi to come to Port Arthur and visit with the people that are living on that fenceline, that are living at or below the poverty line, and answer the question: Why aren’t they doing more to assist this community in its time of need? And why aren’t they doing more to assist the people any time in that particular community that have to bear the brunt of them making billions of dollars annually?

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up across the street from Motiva?

HILTON KELLEY: Yes, I did.

AMY GOODMAN: In the historically black community there.

HILTON KELLEY: Yes, I did. I was born at 1202E Carver Terrace housing project in 1960 to a 17-year-old mother.

AMY GOODMAN: You moved away from Port Arthur.

HILTON KELLEY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But you moved back. Why?

HILTON KELLEY: I left Port Arthur seeking a better opportunity. I lost my mother, Bernadine Kelley, to domestic violence. She was shot and killed by my stepdad. And I left Port Arthur just to get away, and I joined the United States Navy, where I served for four years. I was a second-class petty officer by the time I got out, E5. And when I got out, with an honorable discharge, I decided to pursue a career in acting. I stayed in California for 21 years pursuing that career. And I finally got into the Screen Actors Guild in 1991.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a stuntman?

HILTON KELLEY: Yes, yes. I really—I really did the stunt thing. I enjoyed that. And I worked very closely with Mykelti Williamson. Mykelti Williamson is best known for his role as Bubba in Forrest Gump and also Uncle George in ATL. And he and I are still pretty good friends to this day. So, yeah, I mean, it was a great stint.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were doing fine. Why did you come back to Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, I went home to Port Arthur just to visit in 2000, just to go to a Mardi Gras and visit with friends and relatives. And so, when I got to Port Arthur in 2000, February, I just sort of walked around, and I saw the dilapidated buildings. I saw a large number of kids playing in the streets. There was no community centers. And the pollution was just as bad then as it was back in the '70s. And so, when I went back to California—I was working on Nash Bridges at the time with Don Johnson and Cheech Marin—I kept thinking about how someone needed to do something in Port Arthur to help bring some reprieve to that community and help get the kids off the street. And so, by May of 2000, I decided that I had to go back home, after an epiphany. I had a dream, as cliché as that may sound, but I literally did. And it was so powerful to where it led me to go back home to do what I'm doing today.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about negotiating a deal with Motiva to pay the healthcare—of residents?

HILTON KELLEY: Right. Well, Motiva had been having a large number of issues in the city of Port Arthur. And they had been dumping tons and tons of legal and illegal emissions. There are—there is such a thing. And so, they had so many events that had taken place within a few years to where we got wind of all the emission data and found out that they had been way out of compliance with the Clean Air Act laws and regulations. And in knowing that, we decided to file suit against the Motiva oil refinery, which led to us coming into a large settlement, $3.5 million, which is unprecedented for any activist to achieve due to a lawsuit. And so, we got that funding for our community, and it had been used to help spur businesses and also create services from other surrounding areas for the community.

AMY GOODMAN: You negotiated EPA regulations. You pushed hard for them.

HILTON KELLEY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the first things we heard with Harvey was that they were rolling back EPA regulations.

HILTON KELLEY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Which meant that a lot of these refineries could release even more toxic emissions, use this as an opportunity, Hurricane Harvey. You talk about—you know, people talk about front-line communities. You talk about fenceline communities. What did this mean for Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, what it means to Port Arthur is almost a death sentence for thousands of folks. Under the Barack Obama administration and his EPA, we were able to get a lot of great things done. As a matter of fact, we got the Motiva oil refinery to put in flare gas recovery units, sulfur recovery units. Also, Valero—

AMY GOODMAN: That would take in the sulfur, the—

HILTON KELLEY: That would take in the sulfur instead of dumping it, emitting it directly into the air that we breathe. We also got Valero to do the same thing. And what Valero found, and they articulated to me, was that it helped them to save fuel. I mean, it was a good thing to put those kind of regulations in place and to push them to put in flare gas recovery units and sulfur recovery units. But under Trump, he’s unraveling all the great work that Obama administration had achieved. Lisa Jackson was very instrumental in helping us to get a clinic built in the city of Port Arthur.

AMY GOODMAN: The EPA administrator.

HILTON KELLEY: The EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson. And also, Gina McCarthy also is a friend of the environment. They get it. They understand climate change is real. And we think it’s time for Trump to get the message. It’s real. It’s happening now. And because of rollback, it’s going to hurt and harm many communities, not only in Port Arthur, but around the state of Texas and also around this world.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is FEMA and the Red Cross? I mean, the Red Cross, I don’t know how many millions of dollars that it got to deal with Texas, and everyone recognized the mass crisis in Texas. What about how Port Arthur residents were dealt with?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, I’ve been getting hundreds of emails since I’ve been here. I put out a poll just yesterday asking folks, “If you’re not—if you’re not getting your FEMA services, let me know.” And I’ve had over 300-some people hit me up, saying, “Hilton, FEMA has dropped me. Hilton, FEMA has not done anything. Red Cross is pulling out. They’re reneging on the $400.” My wife sat on the phone for two-and-a-half hours with FEMA, trying to get an inspection of our home. We have yet to see an inspector, and yet the phone hung up right after she got someone on the phone. So, I don’t know what kind of games they are playing, but FEMA is not doing their job on the ground there in Port Arthur, Texas, nor are they doing it in Houston and surrounding areas, like Baytown, Beaumont. They’re all suffering. And our elderly are being told that they have to get a loan, because many of them are—they had a fixed mortgage, a 30-year mortgage, and now they’re being told they have to get a loan to pay those off.

AMY GOODMAN: What about renters? What about people who were told they’ve got to evacuate—

HILTON KELLEY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —got to go into shelters? Explain.

HILTON KELLEY: A lot of the renters, like in Louis Manor housing projects, Prince Hall, a bunch of the other apartment complexes there around, like Cedar Ridge, these places evacuated everyone. And what they told many of these folks is that they were being evicted—not asked to vacate until the place was renovated, but they’re told that they were evicted. Now, usually, when you get evicted, it’s because you’ve done something wrong, or you were negligent in keeping up with your lease agreement. But these people were evicted so they have no right to return. And so, we’re asking people—we’re working closely with Legal Aid to help inform these citizens of their rights, that they have a right to stay, that they have a right to return. And we’re asking them to stay in place until someone comes to tell you directly.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is terrible, because if someone thinks that they are going to be evicted if they leave their home—

HILTON KELLEY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —then that will endanger them next time. They will not leave.

HILTON KELLEY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: What were the grounds that they were evicted? We’re talking about public housing now.

HILTON KELLEY: We’re talking about public housing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the federal government. Ben Carson came to Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: Yes. I never got a phone call. I was waiting for a phone call from Mr. Carson due to the large amount of work I have been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: The head of HUD.

HILTON KELLEY: Yeah, the head of HUD.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ben Carson.

HILTON KELLEY: Dr. Ben Carson. And we were waiting for a call from him, but he met with the mayor, I understand. Governor Abbott came to Port Arthur, which I don’t remember him ever coming to Port Arthur. We had been pushing really hard to get our congressman online to assist with this issue. And yet, these guys, they kind of pick and choose some of the better apartment complexes to go to and brag about how this was used, block grants were used. But yet, they didn’t hit the hard-line areas where people were being thrown out on their ears with their kids, sleeping in cars because they had nowhere else to go. Even people that are handicapped were sleeping in their cars, sleeping in their mold-infested homes. This is not right. We’re being kicked to the curb.

AMY GOODMAN: What about landfills that are being set up as we speak?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, there has been a landfill set up on 19th Street and Nashville—dead smack in the middle of this low-income community. The mayor of Port Arthur, Derrick Freeman, said that it was the most expedient place and that it was safe. I don’t see how in the world that that land site, illegal land site, which we call it, could be possibly safe, because a bunch of the debris there were torn out of mold-infested homes. It was filled with toxic water. And yet you’re dumping it in a community where people reside. This is not right, and it should be removed. We’ve been campaigning and pushing to get this relocated, but he said they’re going to sift through the material and relocate it. But once the contractors that are there doing the work are gone and the media lights go off, I can bet you that Derrick Freeman is not going to have the money to move that trash from our community.

AMY GOODMAN: This is—when you say “our community,” you mean the black community of Port Arthur?

HILTON KELLEY: I mean the black community on the East End and the West End of Port Arthur.

AMY GOODMAN: Recap for us the refineries in your area.

HILTON KELLEY: Yeah, well, the refineries in our area, we have the Motiva oil refinery. We have Valero oil refinery. We have Total oil refinery.

AMY GOODMAN: French.

HILTON KELLEY: Total is French-owned. We have BASF, which is a German-owned chemical company. We have Chevron chemical company. We have Flint Hills chemical company. We are inundated with petroleum industries that dump daily. If one refinery or chemical plant is not having an emission event, another one is. And we also have Oxbow Calcining, which is a pet coke facility that takes the guck that’s left over from the refineries, and processes it and dumps tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every day, all day.

AMY GOODMAN: Puerto Rico is dealing with an environment of catastrophe right now. You’ve been to Puerto Rico a number of times—

HILTON KELLEY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —to help the people of Puerto Rico deal with coal ash—

HILTON KELLEY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —something they have been fighting and resisting the dumping of for quite some time.

HILTON KELLEY: Well, I’ve been working very closely with Denny Larson with the Bucket Brigade in California. And he and I have worked together helping those folks over there in Puerto Rico to get some results when it comes to reducing the coal ash from a lot of the coal-fired power plants out there. And what they do, they’ve been dumping the coal ash in dump sites, which is illegal. A lot of the dust and debris from that coal ash flies through the community. It gets on the windowsills. And if it gets on the windowsills, you could bet it’s in the very air that you’re breathing. And a lot of the people there, particularly kids, are very impacted by those particles. And many of the people are suffering respiratory problems because of that exposure to fly ash, and something needs to be done. And with this hurricane, I’m pretty sure that much of that coal ash have been washed into the community. The people of Puerto Rico are in a serious situation, and we need to do all that we can to get them the help and assistance they need.

AMY GOODMAN: You were dealing with that coal ash before the flood.

HILTON KELLEY: Oh, yes. I mean, we’ve been dealing with the coal ash issue for about—

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds, so what would it mean with this massive flooding of the island?

HILTON KELLEY: Well, with the massive flooding of this island, it definitely means certain injury, definitely certain injury, and, in many cases, death, because this high exposure to these kind of toxins with heavy metals and stuff can contaminate the blood, and ultimately people can perish from this down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue the conversation, post it online at democracynow.org. Hilton Kelley, environmental justice activist in Port Arthur, Texas, a fenceline community on the Texas Gulf Coast that was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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