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Regulations and technology that prevent toxins in the air are long overdue says Hilton Kelley of Community In-power and Development Association

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

October is Children’s Health Month. It is splashed all over the EPA website. Millions of Americans and their children experience direct exposure to highly toxic air on a daily basis.

On Tuesday, October 28, the EPA closes its public comments on their proposed new rules for oil refineries, which include emission limits, technology standards, and air monitoring for millions who live or work in the shadow of the refineries, also known as fenceline communities. The EPA says the new regulations will eliminate 5,600 tons of hazardous chemicals associated with leukemia and other forms of cancer each year, as well as reduce carbon dioxide emissions at these plants by 700,000 metric tons. Although the oil industry is objecting to the proposed new rules, others are saying regulations don’t go far enough to protect people’s health from toxic pollutants.

To help unpack the issue is Hilton Kelley. He’s joining us from Port Arthur, Texas. Hilton Kelley is the founder and executive director for Community In-Power Development Association and cochair of the [Region VI] Regional Health Equity Council. He’s [a] recipient of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest and most prestigious award for grassroots environmentalists.

Thank you so much for joining us, Hilton.

HILTON KELLEY, FOUNDER AND EXEC. DIR., CIDA: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: Hilton, will the new regulations get at the toxins we need to get at? Will it make a difference?

KELLEY: Well, we like to think so. I mean, it’s going to make somewhat of a difference. For many, many years, this community here on the Gulf Coast, where there are more than four major oil refineries, about six chemical plants, we can use all the help that we can get, even though we are confident that the Environmental Protection Agency can do more. But we are appreciative here in the fenceline community as to what they’re doing now. As a matter of fact, the SSM rule, they’re strengthening that particular rule, and we’re really happy about that, because during startup and shutdown and malfunctions, tons and tons of legal and illegal emissions are dumped into the environment, which basically seriously downgrade the quality of our air.

PERIES: So, Hilton, the problem with the EPA is not the regulations. They’re pretty good at issuing regulations in the past–and BPA oil spill comes to mind in the Gulf. The problem has been that they have no capacity to monitor and implement the regulations properly and then bring to justice those who are violating it. They don’t seem to have enough resources. Will it be any different this time?

KELLEY: Well, I think it will be, because there’s been a lot of push from the grassroots community of fenceline communities like Port Arthur, Texas, for the EPA to be a little bit more robust when it comes to enforcement and compliance, though another issue that the EPA faces is a constant pushback from the state regulatory agencies. Here in Port Arthur, Texas, we have the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and they feel that their state policies are good enough to govern these facilities and to get them to stay in–into compliance. But yet the EPA is pushing, saying, no, more regulation is needed, because the grassroots communities and people living on those fencelines are calling for it. And we are calling for it, because we feel that the state regulatory agencies aren’t doing enough, really, to help protect the public’s health. They’re doing more to help with the permitting process of industries so that they can continue to do their business. And what we’re saying is that we need more fenceline monitoring to ensure that there are no fugitive emissions escaping that facility. If it is, we need to put that identify it and have it addressed.

Also, there’s a lot of issues when it comes to startup and shutdown. Startup and shutdown is usually due to some kind of accident that’s going on with one of their units and they have to shut it down and then restart it. And whenever they do that, then there’s excess emissions that are dumped into the air that usually aren’t calculated. And we’re trying to get those emission levels calculated as well by the Environmental Protection Agency. But there’s a lot of pushback from industry and also state regulatory agencies.

PERIES: Right. Hilton, I understand that there are nearly 150 oil refineries across the country. I don’t know how many there are in where you are. But how many people live in the proximity of these oil refineries? How many people are affected by these chemicals directly?

KELLEY: Well, we have at least 25,000 to 30,000 people living and working around these facilities. Port Arthur, Texas, is home to approximately 49,000 residents. And the industry stretched for at least two miles on the west side of Port Arthur right through the middle of our community. And then, on the west end of Port Arthur, there is the Total oil refinery. We have the BASF chemical plant, which is a German-owned facility. And then on the west end of town we have Motiva, which stretches from the east side of town to the west. And it puts out about 610,000, 615,000 barrels of oil per day. And I’ll remind you that whenever you have a process where you’re cooking crude oil, the emissions that are emitted from that process do not just stay in one area. It travels for miles. And many times I’m out in the field taking pictures of the smokestacks and the long smoke trail that is trailing from the stack for more than about 15 miles across our city into other neighboring states.

PERIES: Right. Hilton, you are in the middle of a lawsuit that your organization is bringing about. Tell us more about that. Who’s involved in that lawsuit? And what is it about?

KELLEY: Well, there’s the Air Alliance. There’s TREJAS. There’s our organization, the Community In-Power Development Association. And what this lawsuit is about is to get the Environmental Protection Agency to take a close look at the SSM rule. The SSM rule started to shut down and malfunction. Every five years or so, the EPA should take a look at those rules and look at ways in which they can keep them updated as to today’s technologies. But it’s been more than 19 years since the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a close look at the startup and shutdown, malfunction rule within the Clean Air Act. And so, in doing that, in pushing the EPA to do that, we are getting these guys to say, okay, we know they have a lot of issues when they have startup and shutdown. There is emissions that are dumped into the air. And we want them to take a look at whether or not those omissions can be prevented by using up-to-date technology. There’s a lot of recovery units that are out there now that have been brought online that industries can use to help recover a lot of the fugitive emissions, a lot of the sulfur that’s dumped into the environment, and flare gas recovery units also. So we want the EPA to sort of stay abreast of new technologies that can better help protect our air quality and our citizens who live next to these facilities.

PERIES: And the lawsuit is exactly to do what?

KELLEY: Well, we’re hoping that it’ll get the EPA to get up off their hands and start doing the work that they are put in place to do, which is to help to keep the regulations up-to-date and to make sure that the air quality becomes cleaner and not dirtier. I mean, we need the Environmental Protection Agency to do exactly what its title says, environmental protection–protect our environment and protect our health and stay on top of latest technology. This is what we’re hoping that we spur them to do, to get up off of their seat, go through the books, find out better ways in which these industries can operate.

PERIES: Hilton, what about the resources? One of the things that we learned about the BPA [sic] spill was that the EPA actually didn’t have the resources to do proper monitoring and assigned the kind of fines and application of the regulations. Has that changed any?

KELLEY: Well, I think with–the present administration has gotten better than what it was under the Bush administration. The Environmental Protection Agency has a little bit more resources than they did in previous years. But, of course, they could have a better staff, they could have a larger staff. But funding is always an issue with the Environmental Protection Agency.

And as you all know, I mean, there are other entities out there that are pro-industry. And I’m not anti-industry, and our organization’s not anti-industry, but what we are are people that are concerned with the type of emissions that are being dumped into the air that we breathe that impact our lives and impact our health. So what we’re basically saying is we would like to see the Environmental Protection Agency better equipped to come out into the community to do their job whenever there is an oil spill or an explosion. We would like to see them better manned. They need to hire more staff so that they can cover the territory which they govern, which is from the East Coast to the West and from the north to the south. But yet each year we find that EPA is under budget; even though it’s gotten better with the present administration, more funding should be granted to EPA to help protect all of us, not just people on the fenceline, because, as I stated earlier, the emissions that are released from these facilities do not just to stay in the impacted communities.

PERIES: And recently we actually interviewed James K. Boyce from UMass Amherst, who had done a study called the Three Measures of Environmental Inequality, which actually applied the unequal way that environmental hazards impact on people of color and low-income communities. Are you finding that on the ground there?

KELLEY: Well, yes. I mean, historically what we’ve found is that when the environmental justice movement started, Dr. Robert Bullard was at the spearhead of that. He’s one of the men who helped to spearhead and one of the founding members of the EJ movement in the ’70s. And what they found was that there’s a disproportionate amount of landfills positioned in low-income communities, and particularly low-income people of color communities. And once they took a lack at that, they started to looking at other types of industries. And we found that most of the time, your heavy emitters of toxic emissions, your wastewater treatment facilities, your landfills, were all located in low-income people of color communities. And on some occasions you found them in slightly more affluent communities. But disproportionately those type of industries are located in low-income people of color communities across the nation.

PERIES: Hilton, thank you so much for joining us today, and I appreciate you giving us this time. And lots of luck with your lawsuit.

KELLEY: Well, thank you for having me. And also I’d just like to mention that there’s a book out called A Lethal Dose of Smoke and Mirrors, and it’s out on And it sort of talks about the life here that we lead in Port Arthur, Texas, and also what it was like and what it’s like growing up around refineries and chemical plants.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Hilton Kelley organized the "Community In-power and Development Association" (CIDA) in 2000 and began to challenge the regulatory agencies EPA and TCEQ and their policies and environmental violations of the plants that loom over the community. CIDA collects scientific data about the sources, types and amounts of pollution emitted by polluting neighbors and educates residents of Port Arthur (who are overwhelmingly low-income individuals and people of color) about the toxic burden they shoulder. Mr. Kelley is also a member of the Screen Actors guild he has worked in the movie and stage industry for 15 years and he has also served on the National Environmental Justice advisory Council to EPA 2009 - 2011.