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Hilton Kelley helps clean up Texas Gulf Coast town

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But though plenty of people are aware of what Kelley does, fewer understand why. He had a burgeoning career as a stuntman and actor in Oakland, Calif. He was inducted into the Screenwriters Guild in 1991 and worked with actor Don Johnson. Then, he walked away from it all.

In February 2000, he returned to Port Arthur for Mardi Gras and stumbled into a nightmare. The once-bustling streets were pocked with holes. The heavens glowed eerily orange at night as flares from refineries shot into the sky, raining noxious, toxic particulates. The air reeked of chemicals.

He walked the streets, noting what he thought was needed: jobs, a diverse economic base, and a social infrastructure.

Over the next three months, he took the bus from California to Texas 18 times. As he rode, he honed his plan.

In May 2000, he came home for good.

"My California friends said, 'You're crazy to leave here and go back to that little town,'" he recalls, his voice booming against the walls of the soul food restaurant he's renovating downtown. "I got back and people said, 'Man, what you come back for? Ain't nothin' here.' "

But there was something – pollution. Lots of it. More than three-quarters of the residents had respiratory ailments. Cancer rates were 20 percent higher than the state average. Nearly every day, toxic chemicals like benzene, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide were dumped into the air in unplanned "emission events."

Instead of encouraging people to stay, he wondered, maybe he should be telling them to leave. He decided to educate himself on environmental issues. He met activists in other states. He learned how to measure pollution levels and test the air for hazardous chemicals.

Slowly, the situation changed. Today, he's on good terms with most of the petrochemical plant officials and is welcome to tour their facilities. A dialogue has begun.

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