On December 15, 2010, GCM’s very own Board Member and long time community partner, Suzie Canales, sent a loud and clear message at the first ever White House Forum on Environmental Justice.

“I did not come here to be talked to.  I came here because I thought I was going to be able to voice concerns,” Suzie, a fenceline neighbor from Corpus Christi, Texas, said to EPA head Lisa Jackson as she stood up at the front of the auditorium.  “The ‘Plan EJ 2014’ — these are bureaucratic words on paper.  They do nothing for these communities.”

Then, almost as if on cue, Ignacia Moreno, the head of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, asked for patience from the audience in an attempt to ease the building tension.

PATIENCE??  Fenceline communities have been patient for decades while the EPA does nothing to reduce the toxic exposure in communities living next to industry.  The residents don’t need patience. They need clean air! They need the EPA to stop protecting these industries that they issue permits to. Suzie recently completed a case study of EPA failures in a new report: “Risk Assessment or Risk Acceptance: Why the EPA’s Attempts to Achieve Environmental Justice have failed and what they can do about it.”

AND, they need the EPA to listen to the residents of fenceline communities instead of talking to them and launching studies!  An EJ forum at the White House is a great first step but poses no tangible gains for the communities dealing with toxic pollution everyday.

Ms. Canales is absolutely correct: how can a giant bureaucratic agency even attempt to fix environmental justice problems without hearing the concerns of the residents who live with these problems everyday?

We’ve seen this many times before.  Nearly every President has had top officials offering lip service to the problem of pollution disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color.  They make pledges to take action and form ‘groundbreaking’ new committees to address such issues, yet somehow it all gets lost in the bureaucracy.

Moreno admitted the Justice Department has not gone into the communities to talk with residents one on one and committed to do so.  She pledged, “You’re going to see more of our lawyers talking to you” in a community setting.

Any activist can tell you that talking to community member is the first thing you should do.  It’s almost impossible to believe it took these agencies that long to figure that out.

However, even with this promise, as Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. “The most important piece is what happens after this.”

They will come to the communities.  But will they listen?