Walking the Fence Line


Suzie Canales is one cafeteria worker you don’t want to mess with. Attendees at last December’s first-ever White House Forum on Environmental Justice learned this the hard way. The forum was meant to illustrate the Obama administration’s commitment to protecting people from environmental health hazards. Canales—a community activist from Corpus Christi who had traveled to D.C. for the event using donations from friends—had a different impression. “For some reason, the White House wants to make this a big media circus,” she said. “They didn’t pull this together to listen or work with us, but to talk at us.”

When a question-and-answer session was pre-empted for a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder, Canales spoke up. As The New York Times noted, Canales stood in front of the auditorium and told some of the government’s highest officials, “I did not come here to be talked to. I came here because I thought I was going to be able to voice concerns.” Shortly thereafter she was granted an impromptu meeting with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Not one to bite her tongue, Canales told Jackson that her neighbors need to stop being studied to death. “The documents the EPA has produced have no value to us,” she said. “They’re words on paper. What we need is real action.”

Canales has been talking that way to powerful interests for more than a decade. Eleven years ago, Diana Bazan, Canales’ sister, died of breast cancer at 42. At the funeral service, local residents approached Canales with similar stories of relatives dying from cancer at a young age.

Canales says these cancers were caused by living near heavily polluting refineries. Since then Canales has been fighting for environmental justice in Corpus Christi’s fence line communities through her organization, Citizens for Environmental Justice. That is, when she’s not working in a Corpus cafeteria.

In 2003, the group started a Corpus Christi bucket-brigade program that helped residents take air samples on their own. By testing air quality and documenting refinery emissions, Citizens for Environmental Justice helped spur federal prosecutors to indict a Citgo Petroleum Corp. plant. A federal jury later convicted the company for violating the federal Clean Air Act. It was a landmark case for environmental enforcement.

Canales is now fighting the demolition of a defunct ASARCO/Encycle waste-recycling plant in the Corpus area. She doesn’t think community members will be protected from the hazardous materials there when demolition begins.

Melissa Jarrell, assistant professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, says most of the groundbreaking environmental studies that have been conducted in the Corpus area would never have happened without Canales. “To me, she’s a hero,” Jarrell says.