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Know the West

Freedom Ride West: Toxic Reality


Editor's note: James Mills is journeying around the West, exploring issues of diversity in Western national parks.

Port Arthur, TX is a long way from Colorado. But when Texas environmental justice advocate Hilton Kelley delivered a message to the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, he demonstrated an activist power that transcends that distance.

Kelley, who fights for the rights of poor populations whose health is negatively impacted by oil refinery pollution, spoke on the importance of protecting the rights of all to enjoy clean air, water and soil.

The 32nd annual Telluride Film festival was my first stop on a road trip I call Freedom Ride West -- a modern investigation of diversity in the National Park Service. Here, I attended this celebration of conservation culture. In a box canyon 365 miles southwest of Denver, Telluride transforms in the late spring into a gathering place for some of the leading environmental activists in the world. With special guests like Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams, Mountain Film is more than a series of adventure movies. It's a place of inspiration, where ideas are shared and attendees are prompted to improve life our planet and turn their "awareness into action." That was this year's theme.

When you bring together the elite in any movement there's the risk of isolating the rest. Invitation-only events and $25 lunches in town don’t always make good fertilizer for grass roots. And films about climbing Mount Everest or traversing African deserts don’t typically relate to the common experiences of ordinary people, those whose homes and lives are restricted to the urban confines of industrial oil towns like Port Arthur.

But to Mountain Film’s credit, the organizers continue to introduce films and presenters who offer a unique perspective, helping to bring the lofty aspirations of high flying socialites and rope ascending do-gooders to the ground for a dose of reality.

Hilton Kelley appears in the film “My Toxic Reality” a short based on his work in Port Arthur and a poem he wrote of the same title. He details the mission to hold accountable oil producers whose methods stain land and poison the air around fence-line communities. Populated primarily by African-American and Hispanic residents, these neighborhoods adjacent to oil refineries have unacceptably high rates of chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and many toxin-induced forms of cancer. Through his organization, the Community In-power and Development Corporation, Kelley provides third party testing data to show that toxic emission levels already exceed state and federal minimums. Through legislation he helps to craft, more stringent restrictions are put into place. And through legal action polluters are made to pay fines and make restitution to those they injure.

Western states can learn a great deal from Kelley’s example. He shows us that one person can make a dramatic impact on his community and the environment that surrounds it. By organizing his neighbors and compelling his local government to act, Kelley was successful in creating change that will last.

My Toxic Reality from Mill Valley Film Group on Vimeo.

Westerners can also learn that any environment where the population fails to protect its resources is profoundly vulnerable to destruction in the name of development. As minerals, oil and natural gas are extracted with more invasive means using toxic chemicals to unearth depleted supplies, area residents will be put at risk to contamination and illness. And while the demand for energy continues rise in our urban centers the health and well being of the unlucky few who become sick will fall as collateral damage in our rush toward progress and prosperity.

Though most of us are inspired to protect our wild and scenic places in order to protect their natural beauty, never before has it been more important to protect the sanctity of our cities. By reducing our consumption of energy resources we can also lower the demand that prompts extraction from more remote areas. And by empowering disenfranchised minorities, African-Americans and Hispanics, who traditionally in our country have a strained relationship with nature, activists can enlist a motivated and inspired constituency to support legislation that protects the environment. With messages that are relevant to their best interests, health and well-being, Kelley is working to transform his toxic reality into a safe and sustainable existence for us all.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

James Mills is a freelance journalist and the creator of the blog/podcast series The Joy Trip Project

The Freedom Ride West series is supported in part by Patagonia