Environmentalism,  Iran

Grass-roots environmentalists honored; others attacked and arrested

The Washington Post reports on the winners of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prizes, awarded annually to grass-roots environmental activists from different parts of the world.

The winner for North America is Hilton Kelley, who has organized his community in Port Arthur, Texas, to reduce some of the worst pollution in the US.

Kelley is an accidental environmentalist. He left Port Arthur for a Navy stint in 1980 and remained in California for 20 years, working part of the time as a Hollywood stuntman. While visiting his home town, 90 miles east of Houston on the Gulf Coast, for its annual Mardi Gras festival in February 2000, he was deeply troubled by what he saw.

“It was just very dismal. It was mind-numbing,” Kelley said last week in a telephone interview. “The town needed to be awakened.”

The city and surrounding Jefferson County had one of the highest levels of air pollution in the country and suffered from cancer rates that were 23 percent higher than the state average, according to the Texas Cancer Registry. Health officials said many children in Port Arthur had respiratory problems, according to organizers of the prize.

Kelley knew next to nothing about clean-air standards. But within months, he educated himself on public policy, gathered leaders and old school buddies in the African American community, started an organization called the Community In-Power and Development Association in May 2000, and put 70 refineries and chemical plants in the area on notice.

Kelley harassed Shell Oil with protests and legal action. He even traveled to the Hague to demonstrate outside one of the oil giant’s corporate meetings. He “was able to expose the oil industry’s lax protocols and made the companies accountable in a way they never were before,” the prize’s organizers said.

In 2006, Motiva Enterprises, a subsidiary of Shell Oil and billed as the largest refinery in the nation, was persuaded to start a $3.5 million community fund as part of a Good Neighbor Agreement to promote economic revitalization and improve pollution controls. The next year, activists led by Kelley ended a corporation’s plan to import from Mexico 20,000 tons of toxic liquids that were banned by the federal government and incinerate them at its Port Arthur hazardous-waste plant.

“A lot has changed,” Kelley said. “Even though we have a long way to go, it’s better than it was. They’ve reduced the amount of flaring that shoots fire from a smokestack for days. They’re updating antiquated equipment. Enforcement has been stepped up by the state. They know people are watching.”

You can read and watch videos about the other winners here. Surely even conservatives and “big government” skeptics can get behind such grass-roots activism by private citizens seeking to protect the health and resources of their own communities and regions.

Speaking of grass-roots environmental activitism: Amnesty International reports:

Around 70 Iranian Azerbaijanis were reportedly arrested on 2 April during peaceful demonstrations in Tabriz, and about 20 others in Oromieh, north-western Iran. The protesters were calling for Lake Oromieh to be saved, as it is at risk of drying out due to dam building. Most have been released but the whereabouts of at least five protesters remain unknown.

The demonstrations took place in Tabriz, Oromieh and reportedly other cities where Iranian Azerbaijanis live, calling on the Iranian authorities to remove dams on rivers feeding Lake Oromieh (also spelt Urmia, Urumieh, Oroumiye) which is at risk of drying. Similar to protests in previous years, the protesters brought glasses of water and poured them into the rivers feeding the lake or the lake itself. They also carried banners with slogans such as “Break down dams and let water flow into the Lake Urmia”, “Lake Urmia has no water in it and [if] Azerbaijan does not wake up now, it will be too late” and “Long live Azerbaijan”.

Here’s a video of one of the protests. Watch until the end to see what happens to ordinary men, women and children in Iran who try to protest about, well, anything.

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