Port Arthur, Texas, community activist Hilton Kelley © Microsoft

Port Arthur, Texas, community activist Hilton Kelley

Hilton Kelley's life was just fine in San Francisco. He had acting and film-stunt work. His friends and children were nearby. He was happy.

But in 2000, after a routine visit to Port Arthur, Texas, where he was again struck by the poverty, illness and dilapidated conditions in his hometown, he couldn't shake this feeling: "Why shouldn't I be the one who tries to do something about it?"

Twelve years after dropping everything and moving back, Kelley, who founded the nonprofit Community In-Power & Development Association without a lick of experience in activism, has been credited with significantly improving the air quality in this refinery town and with wringing millions from the oil companies for economic-development opportunities.

The work has been all-consuming. Kelley, 51, has learned how to measure environmental pollution and how to spark media interest in the low-income, predominantly minority West Side neighborhood of Port Arthur. For a few years, he traveled to Amsterdam to speak at Shell Oil's annual shareholders meetings (he bought one share of stock to gain access).

But the toughest battle he faces may be back home, where, he said, elected officials in Texas are reluctant to stand up to oil companies.

"They all come out and say, 'Industry can do no wrong,'" Kelley said. "How do you fight that?"

(Article continues after video.)

The 13 refineries and chemical companies that ring Port Arthur, population 53,000, provide nearly all of the community's job opportunities and two-thirds of the city's tax revenue. But for decades, these companies have polluted the air, hired out-of-town workers and failed to invest much money into the very community in which they are located, Kelley said.

"My mission has never been to close the refineries down. My only thing is to get them to comply with the basic laws, with the Clean Air Act," Kelley said. Otherwise, "they pay a fine, and everything moves on as if nothing ever happened."

He added, "If I had the support of my local government, our state government and our federal government, I could get more done."

Kelley, who votes a straight Democratic ticket, is confident that President Barack Obama will win a second term.

"I think he's on the right track," Kelley said. "I love the health care plan that's been laid out, most of what's in it. I think he's doing everything he can to bring some type of health care to people who have less than ourselves."

"I think that Obama really needs another opportunity, so he can really implement this health care plan," he said.

But Kelley worries that the Affordable Care Act will not receive support from Republicans in Texas. In July, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he would refuse to expand the state's Medicaid program; under Obama's plan, the federal government would pay the full cost for the first three years and 90% thereafter. One in four Texans is currently uninsured.

"I believe if it was a Republican president pushing this plan he'd be all behind it," Kelley said. "They're playing with people's lives because of politics. It's not fair to kids that need it, to elderly that need it, to families that are in these low-income areas. They deserve a shot at being healthy."

Kelley has recently taken on another project: encouraging people in his community to vote (he does not disclose his own political views during voter registration efforts). Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, is one of the few Democratic strongholds in Texas, but it has a relatively low voter turnout rate. One contributing factor, Kelley said, is that people have seen little positive momentum from their own city leaders.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

"A lot of times what happens is you go to a meeting, they say things are going to change, nothing changes," he said. Residents become complacent. "They get beat down, and a lot of these folks are working two to three jobs to make ends meet."

"I'm a proud Texan," Kelley said. "But at the same time I'm not very proud of our leaders."