Suzie Canales gets a lot of attention for her activism. Send her your thanks (below -- and feel free to rewrite the sample leter we have provided) for protecting her community from environmental dangers in Texas.
Leading the Charge Corpus Christi Resident Monitors Local Oil Refineries, Gains FBI Attention By Jennifer Dickson
As a community activist in Corpus Christi, Texas, Suzie Canales has drawn a lot of attention to her causes. In April, her efforts to protect the environment and the health of her neighbors even garnered the attention of the FBI.
Her troubles with the agency started in March, when Canales was standing outside of the fence line at Citgo Petroleum Corp. in Corpus Christi, using her air-monitoring equipment to take random air samples and taking photos to document emissions or pollution problems with the plant. Citgo officials knew her face, her name and why she was there.
As a result of her photography, the corporation reported Canales to the National Response Center, which responds to varied events, such as oil spills or reports of terrorist activity. “Citgo knows my work. Even Washington knows about my work,” Canales said in a Corpus Christi Caller-Times story on May 1. “I think Citgo is exploiting post-9/11 security.”
The FBI cleared her of any wrongdoing after interviews and a visit to her home. She continues to monitor Citgo despite its threat to report her to the feds again, because she feels it is her duty. As the director of the community organization Citizens for Environmental Justice (CFEJ), Canales and her family spend countless hours monitoring local refineries, their emissions and the agencies assigned to regulate them. The group also works to change national policy to ensure cleaner air. “We don’t want to shut down these refineries – we just want to clean them up,” she said. “It is difficult, though, when their public relations staff are building parks, donating computers to local charities or giving cash donations, all the while making people sick.” CFEJ tries to work with the refiners, but it’s not easy.
Canales and others recently approached executives at Valero Refining Co. and Koch Industries, asking them to support the opening of a federally funded health clinic in the area. The companies were not interested, Canales says, because they feared that doing so would make it appear that they were admitting they made people sick. Canales also is working on two refinery-related health studies in conjunction with Public Citizen’s Texas office. Her resources are slim: She is a one-woman office responsible for fund raising, research and community organizing. Small contracts from Public Citizen and Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit environmental organization based in San Francisco, and grants from organizations such as the Environmental Support Center, a foundation in Washington, D.C., have allowed her to train others in taking air quality samples and purchase air sampling equipment. Canales’ efforts benefit not only Corpus Christi, but also activists working across the nation. Her research is used by the Refinery Reform Campaign, a national coalition dedicated to cleaning up refineries. “Suzie is one the strongest, most determined advocates I have ever met,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “I hope her work inspires a whole generation of young women to take up the cause of environmental justice. We need to carry on what she has started for many years to come.”
Canales started her work after the premature death of her sister Diana from breast cancer in December 1999. “After she died ... the family met to clean out her apartment. We started asking questions and wondering why she died,” Canales said. “We began wondering if the environment had played a role in her cancer.” Others began mentioning that someone they knew also died prematurely from cancer and other illnesses, Canales said. Canales said she believes her sister’s death can be attributed to environmental exposure to air toxins. But proving that link is difficult – the latency period for cancer can be up to 40 years, Canales said. “The fact that we grew up on oil waste sites full of hazardous pollutants and toxic dumps was a big clue,” she said.
Now, Canales spends seven days a week working to clean up her hometown, as well as refineries across the nation. She is totally dedicated to her cause and sometimes finds it difficult to find time to spend holidays with her son Jason, daughter Tricia or her two grandchildren. “There is a lot to be done, and we need to see environmental justice in our communities,” she said. “I’d like to say that five or 10 years from now I would have achieved our goals. The reality is that things are looking more and more bleak.”
Jennifer Dickson is the former office manager of Public Citizen’s Texas office.