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Port Arthur Texas – Climate Justice Hits Home

2014 August 12

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By Hilton Kelley

Texas is considered the “Energy State.” In 2013 it was the leading crude oil-producing state in the nation; its 27 refineries exceeding even the production levels of off-shore production. That year Texas was also the leading natural gas producer in the country. Port Arthur, Texas, my home, sits on the Louisiana-Texas border on the Gulf Coast, right in the heart of this Texas energy hub. Port Arthur also is home to four major oil refineries, four chemical plants, one petroleum coke plant, and an international chemical waste incineration facility.

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Many residents of Port Arthur, particularly those in the low income community of color, in the city’s Historic west side, have been and continue to be disproportionately negatively impacted by carbon emissions, volatile organic compounds, and known carcinogens from these facilities. Based on a local door-to-door community survey, one out of every five households here has someone who suffers from chronic respiratory illnesses, many of whom are children. According data compiled by the Texas Cancer Registry, the county’s cancer incidence rate is 25% higher than the state average. We have a large number of people in our community who have been diagnosed with cancer and liver and kidney disease. A separate study by the University of Texas Medical Branch found that the residents of Port Arthur are four times more likely than people who live 100 miles away to suffer from heart and respiratory problems, nervous and skin disorders, and other illnesses. The health problems endured by my friend Paula and her family are examples of the devastating impacts pollution is having in my community.

Smoke rises from Deepwater Horizon

The question of how much pollution one community can bear takes on a whole new meaning when talking about climate change. The ferocity of recent hurricanes has been unexpected, bringing in storm surges that reached to the top of the 100-year levee. Due to rising sea levels, a portion of Highway 87 leading to Galveston along the Gulf Coast has not been open for years because large sections have been washed out. Vast amounts of coastal marshlands and wetlands, which serve as natural sponges that trap and slowly release storm waters, are contaminated largely due to oil spills, big ones like the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, as well as smaller ones too. There is a massive sinkhole in the Louisiana wetlands which is possibly leaking chemical waste from a very large underground injection well.

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

The emergence of serious storms and other significant weather changes only exacerbates the problems we are dealing with. Like the Murphy Oil flooding following Hurricane Katrina, storm surges will wash chemicals from their confinement into our neighborhoods. It’s not just the major storms that wreak environmental havoc on coastal areas like ours that are home to oil and gas production facilities. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike (a Category 2 storm) caused hundreds of releases of oil, gasoline, and dozens of other substances into our air and water, facilities were damaged causing explosions and other catastrophes that only compound the suffering of my friends, neighbors and future generations.

The time to deal with climate change and related issues like chemical safety, chemical reduction, and community resiliency is now — people are dying because of over-exposure to dangerous substances. Human and wildlife habitats are being lost. Just as important, we are losing the culture and way of life of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast. We must do more to get local, regional, and State governments involved in the fight to reduce and combat climate change. Time is of the essence.

This must happen! Not next year, not next month, but right now.

About the author: Hilton Kelley is the Executive Director and Founder of Community In-power and Development Association Inc. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his efforts on environmental justice.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    August 12, 2014

    As a member of the Medical community, I have seen first hand the impacts of air pollution on the communities that I have served. I’m glad that EPA is working with States to develop strategies to lower the impacts of carbon. I have to commend whoever developed the video in this blog, it definitely captures what so many people face everyday.

    I hope others will share what is happening in their communities, so that we can keep our most overburdened communities in the forefront of our future planning to address climate impacts.

  2. Omega Wilson permalink
    August 12, 2014

    I was privileged to serve on NEJAC with Hilton Kelly and several others featured in this series of EJ blog YouTube stories. Hilton addresses so many major air quality and human exposure impacts from the pollutions from the Texas oil industry. Where we shared information was related the massive highway and marine port corridor traffic that emits diesel and particulate contamination in addition to oil and gas refineries emissions. Thanks for efforts to continue shedding light on the inter-relationship of ground level EJ disparities in large and small communities in all ten EPA regions. Omega Wilson, West End Revitalization Association, Mebane, NC

  3. Dan Fedak Sr. permalink
    August 12, 2014

    I am a Pennsylvania native. Our state is currently going through an energy boom with natural gas extraction. The northern-tier counties are mostly affected by the fracking process. I am also a fisherman and have noticed the water clarity of the Susquehanna river to be more on the gray-milky side. I pray that this boom does not ruin our state’s natural resources. My career has taken me into education. One of the subjects I teach is “Your Role in the Green Environment” which focuses on reducing our carbon footprint.

    I feel for the people of Port Arthur. Those carbon emissions will have an effect on all of us.

  4. Dan Fedak Sr. permalink
    August 12, 2014

    ps. I know first-hand about pollution near the Gulf, I lived in Houston, Texas for nearly 9 years. I stopped catching blue grabs because of the increased amount of tar-balls I would discover in their flesh.

  5. Mirabel Weriwoh permalink
    August 12, 2014

    This is very touching. I hope something will be done about the aforementioned exposures which are impacting the health of the public within the highlighted community.

    • bob permalink
      September 23, 2014

      what I did not see in this video or written above was anything about whats being done to decrease the flares and stop the pollution?!

  6. Teri permalink
    August 13, 2014

    Thank you Hilton for your perseverance to make life better for everyone!

  7. Moving Forward Network permalink
    August 14, 2014

    Thank you for the excellent blog post, and great work EPA Region 6 has been doing. We’ve covered it in EJ and Citizen Science News http://paper.li/Goodsmovement/1391689822

    Eric D. Kirkendall

  8. Carlton Eley permalink
    August 16, 2014

    Great video! Hilton Kelly’s points are sobering and provocative. The video is a clear reminder that “environmental justice is the unfinished business of the environmental movement”.

  9. Kim permalink
    August 17, 2014

    Mr. Kelley,

    Thank you for this very powerful story. After watching and reading I had a stronger understanding of how some of these challenges can heighten the impacts in overburdened communities. I had a chance to google your community and work and there are some really innovative things happening there. Could you maybe share about a few of those things,(i.e., the new clinic, your work to get new technologies implemented in the plants) I see why you were awarded the Goldman prize….

    Kim

  10. Liam permalink
    August 17, 2014

    The video said it all. I often wonder how we can be such a powerful country who always wants to point out the weakness of other countries, and we have still have so many communities dealing with these types of injustices. We have to do better and we definitely can!

  11. Devorah permalink
    August 17, 2014

    Great video….This is a prime example of the disparities that exist in so many communities around the country and why social justice is so important.

  12. Hilton Kelley permalink
    August 19, 2014

    Many thanks for those who have commented. Our fight on the Gulf against these major oil refineries is not an easy one and I have come to realize it will be a life long fight for me and the next generation unfortunitly please help support our efforts.

    Hilton Kelley
    Executive Dir / Founder
    Community In-power and Development Association Inc,
    NPA Regional Health Equity Council: member R-6
    “National Partnership for Action (NPA) to end health disparities member
    “National Environmental Justice Advisory Council member formal 2009-2011
    “Goldman Environmental Prize recipient” 2011 North America
    409-498-1088 http://www.mycida.org

  13. Mel permalink
    August 26, 2014

    Hilton,

    Keep up the great work! Excellent video…

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