Suzie Canales was visibly frustrated as she sat on a small couch with U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson yesterday, just outside the first-ever White House Forum on Environmental Justice.
"The government has done nothing," said Canales, who had taken time off from her job as a cafeteria worker in Corpus Christi, Texas, to attend the forum.
At that point, an EPA aide entered the room and asked if Canales could lower her voice. The conversation could be heard by the crowd as Attorney General Eric Holder made a presentation in the auditorium.
Canales, the co-founder of the advocacy group Citizens for Environmental Justice, had come to the forum to find help for the minority and low-income families in her neighborhood, which she said are exposed to toxic pollution because of their proximity to Corpus Christi's refineries and hazardous waste dumps. She ended up getting an impromptu meeting with Jackson in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
About 10 minutes into their talk, Jackson took Canales by the hand and asked her what EPA could do to help.
"We need to stop being studied to death," Canales replied. "What I'm saying to you is that with all these powerful agencies ... instead of giving us more documents that have no value to us, you need to roll up your sleeves."
In some ways, Canales' sentiments were typical of the frustration expressed by many at the forum. The tone at yesterday's event was unexpectedly tense, considering that many attendees described themselves as some of the Obama administration's biggest fans.
The event, which featured five Cabinet secretaries and a slew of other top administration officials, was billed as a "focus on the Obama administration's commitment to ensuring that overburdened and low-income communities have the opportunity to enjoy the health and economic benefits of a clean environment."
Several speakers, such as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, praised the administration for achieving new levels of cooperation through the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, which includes 10 agencies. That group had not met in more than a decade before Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley revived it in September.
Others used their time at the podium to take shots at the George W. Bush administration for failing to make environmental justice issues a priority during its eight years. They described a turnaround by the Obama administration, which has promised to hold monthly meetings and has developed "Plan EJ 2014," a four-year roadmap for areas that have historically borne the brunt of environmental health problems.
If it is not the Obama administration that figures out how to protect the environment equally for all citizens, said Scott Fulton, EPA's general counsel, "I don't know who will."
But some activists said yesterday the Obama administration event was much like others in the environmental justice movement.
Virtually every new president, they say, has had top officials pledge to be more sensitive to inequality in the way that people are exposed to pollution and other environmental problems. Committees are formed. Guidance is issued. New positions are created. And yet, at the neighborhood level, very little seems to change.
'I did not come here to be talked to'
Enter Canales. She got involved in environmental justice issues about 11 years ago, after her sister died of breast cancer. She believes her sister's cancer was the result of living most of her life in a "fenceline community" near dumping grounds for oil waste -- a situation she said couldn't remedy because she wasn't wealthy and because the city zoning system didn't care for minority communities.
When event officials cut off a question-and-answer session on green jobs to let Holder take the stage, Canales felt slighted, she said. So she spoke up.
"I did not come here to be talked to. I came here because I thought I was going be able to voice concerns," she said as she stood at the front of the auditorium. "The Plan EJ 2014 -- these are bureaucratic words on paper. They do nothing for these communities."
After her outburst, Canales was approached by an aide, who fetched her from her seat for a sit-down with Jackson outside the auditorium. She gave the administrator a report she had written, titled: "Why EPA's attempts to achieve environmental justice have failed and what they can do about it."
Back in the auditorium, after Canales stood up, other activists seemed more willing to vent.
Jon Waterhouse, who represents 53 American Indian tribes as executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Council, took the microphone to express his concern that those groups have been forgotten in the discussion of environmental justice.
An activist from Maryland stood up to say that state and local agencies seem not to care about the issue.
"They just keep issuing the freaking permits," the activist said.
But while the event served to highlight some of the skepticism that activists have when it comes to the White House's efforts on environmental justice, those in attendance tended to agree that the Obama administration was doing more than its predecessors.
Yesterday's forum was historic, said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.
"But making history is not enough," Bullard said. "The most important piece is what happens after this."
Patience is needed, DOJ official says
Administration officials admit their effort won't be finished in the short run.
Ignacia Moreno, the head of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, asked for patience from the audience.
"It's been a long time that people have been suffering with these burdens, and it's going to take some time to turn that big vessel," Moreno said. "But we have the commitment."
Canales said she simply wants EPA to practice what it preaches when it comes to environmental justice in Corpus Christi. If the federal government is not willing to shut down polluting factories or relocate the heavily overburdened communities, she said, it could stop protecting industry by conducting endless risk assessments and studies.
Jackson, who has often vowed to be more active on the issue than her predecessors at EPA's helm, declined to comment to a reporter after her sit-down with Canales.
About an hour later, she and Sutley were taking questions online from students at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where President Obama spent two years as an undergraduate. The talk was broadcast on the White House website and on Facebook.
"For too long, environmentalism was seen as almost a luxury item -- something that you can afford to think about once you cover everything else," Jackson told the online audience. "But we now know, and President Obama knows, that it's anything but -- it's the basis for our prosperity. Clean air, clean water, clean land for all should be a given, but it's still unfinished business for us in the environmental movement."
As Jackson was conducting her online discussion, Canales reflected on her chance encounter with the administrator. She said she believes she got her message across and is looking forward to following up with Jackson. She added that such a follow-up might best take place at an upcoming meeting of the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, which Canales asked to be invited to.
But while she was glad that she spoke up, Canales said she continues to stand by what she wrote in her report on the EPA's environmental justice efforts over the past two decades.
"There's no cause for celebration," Canales wrote in that report. "All the executive order has really done to date is spawn more bureaucracies that give false hope to communities with promises and words."