As a longtime environmental justice activist and resident of Port Arthur, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey recently flooded neighborhoods and several large oil refineries, Hilton Kelley has a lot on his mind.
When Truthout reached Kelley on Tuesday, he had just finished posting a crowdfunding appeal for people affected by Hurricane Harvey and was turning to the next task at hand: his own flood-damaged home. Like his neighbors up and down the street, Kelley's belongings were spread across the driveway as he waited with his granddaughter for FEMA officials to arrive and assess the damage.
"I'm right in the mix of this thing," Kelley said. "I rushed to come back here to assist others and also to check on my home that had two feet of water in it."
Kelley was in "survival-first mode," with food, water and a dry place to spend the night among his top concerns. Then there are the troubled refineries working to restart production under the protection of a state waiver ordered by Texas Governor Gregg Abbott in response to the hurricane, which protects facilities from facing penalties for spewing toxic pollution.
A day earlier, the Valero refinery in Port Arthur released 6,116 pounds of sulfur dioxide gas into the air as it restarted operations in the middle of the night, according to state records. Sulfur dioxide causes burning in the nose and throat and is particularly harmful to children, the elderly and people with asthma.
"When it comes to the environment, there's a shutdown [at the refinery], you have smoke coming from the derricks along with some fire, the smell and pungent odors," Kelley said. "Where I'm at now, I don't smell it, but when I go to the west end where the refineries are, it's very apparent."
The Valero refinery would go on to belch thousands of pounds of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and gases into the air as it lurched back to life over the following days, a practice known as "flaring" that occurs when aging refineries abruptly start up, shut down or malfunction.