Suzie Canales: Corpus Christi activist for environmental justice
by Vicki Wolf, December 2007
In her fervor to bring awareness to environmental issues and justice to her Corpus Christi community, Suzie Canales has been accused of everything from terrorist activity to tampering with a jury. She also has received the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Justice.
Canales was one of the few people who came to Houston to testify at the hearing on National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for Petroleum Refineries held at the Hartman Community Center of the Manchester Neighborhood last month. It was the only public hearing in the country the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held on this national issue.
“It’s important to know that this is not just happening in Houston,” Canales explains. “It is happening everywhere everywhere.”
Canales’ interest in environmental issues started in 1999 when her sister, Diana, died from breast cancer. Canales and her husband were heading to New England when she got the word that her sister, only 42 years old, was dying. “I had been a Navy wife and mother for 20 years and had no intention of coming back to Corpus Christi,” Canales recalls. But at her sister’s funeral, people came up to her and talked about how so many people Diana’s age in their Westside Community were sick or had died with cancer. That’s when Canales began to question whether toxins in the environment might have contributed to or even caused her sister’s death.
That was eight years ago. Canales co-founded Citizens for Environmental Justice (CFEJ) and started her own investigation. She and other members of CFEJ conducted an informal health survey and looked around to see what sources for toxic contamination were in the community. “We went from landfills to refinery issues and found that the government had done a very sloppy job of investigating. They said there there was no evidence of hazardous waste,” Canales says. “We found out the whole community was peppered with oil and gas production. The school we attended was next door to an oil construction field, with homes on old oil and gas pipelines that run through landfills that started out as waste pits.”
Canales’ research also revealed blatant race discrimination by Corpus Christi city officials. “When we were doing our research, we found race zoning documents from 1942 that called for people of color to live by old dump sites,” Canales recalls. “Even though restrictions have been lifted off the books, it is still going on because no one is doing anything about it.” Canales has brought national attention to this issue.
Canales has initiated initiated bucket brigades to monitor neighborhood air quality, and has taught Corpus Christi citizens how to do air sampling. She has been a watchdog on refinery row calling attention and legal action against Citgo and their waste pits of benzene, and the koch refineries of Valero.
One of Canales’ victories involved Citgo Refinery East’s application for expansion of capacity by adding 35,000 barrels per day (bpd) to a 71,500 bpd fluidic catalytic cracking unit. With the help of several environmental organizations, Canales was able to get TCEQ to void the permit application because they could not get CITGO to agree to Best Available Control Technology. This victory stopped an increase in sulfur dioxide by over 500 tons per year that would have greatly impacted the communities surrounding CITGO.
Her fight for environmental justice has taken her to refinery fencelines and into the courtroom. One fence-line air-monitoring effort resulted in the FBI being called in to investigate Canales for possible acts of terrorism. Canales was using her air-monitoring equipment to take random air samples and was taking photographs outside of the fence line at Citgo Petroleum Corp. Citgo officials had encountered Canales several times before and knew why she was there. But they reported her to the National Response Center, which responds to various events, including reports of terrorist activity.
After investigating the incident, the FBI concluded that Canales was not a threat and the headline in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, May 17, 2006 edition, read: “Activist no terror threat, FBI says.”
“Citgo knows my work. Even Washington knows about my work,” Canales said in the story. “I think Citgo is exploiting post-9/11 security.”
Canales, not to be intimidated, found herself in the headlines again recently during a USA vs. Citgo trial. She was accused by Citgo of tampering with the jury after she wrote in her blog about the case from the perspective of a “fly on the wall,” she wrote that her information came from an anonymous source and wished others could have heard the jury's deliberations. She since has said that she took creative license with the blog and she only spoke to a juror after the conclusion of Citgo's pollution-related trial.
Regarding her testimony at the NESHAP hearing in Houston, Canales says she wanted to bring to the hearing her experience working for Corpus Christi environmental justice. During her testimony she questioned the EPA’s judgment judgment in assessing dangers of environmental toxins and their impact on human health. “I asked how can the government say no unacceptable health risk when (in Corpus Christi) we have a refinery that has been criminally convicted of violating the Clean Air Act, another that has paid the largest criminal and civil fines in U.S. history, and two refineries that made the top ten list of polluters of carcinogens this year.”
Canales says she is not very optimistic about the EPA changing the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for refineries to better protect human health. “When it comes to the government, for all we know, they’ve made up their mind and this is just a formality,” Canales says. “But if there is a one in million chance, then you have a chance.”