A Victory in the Decades-Long Fight for Environmental Justice in the Gulf and Beyond

05/22/2015 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Suzie Canales never planned on going back home. But, when she saw what was happening to her family, her friends and her neighbors in her community, she could not stay away.

In 1999, Suzie visited Corpus Christi from Illinois at a time of tragedy. Her sister, Diana had passed away at the age of 42 due to breast cancer, and she was back in Texas for the funeral. As she explained to, it was there that she heard people repeatedly tell her that many others in the area around her sister's age also faced cancer, prompting Canales to begin to question whether or not, in a community home to industrial facilities like refineries and power plants, something in the local environment could have contributed to her sister's death and the deaths of so many others.

From there, she started organizing in her community, co-founding Citizens for Environmental Justice (CFEJ) to dig into exactly what was getting into the local air and water. Over the years, Canales and CFEJ mobilized around some of the more egregious cases of environmental injustice in the country. Among the largest problems were upsets, malfunctions and flaring of gases that would happen all hours of the night and day, or while children were at school, and all without enforcement or penalties by state or federal agencies. As it turned out, the facilities were getting a free pass to pollute during those episodes, and the communities had little recourse as a result.

Today, the Obama Administration and the EPA issued a much-needed, long-overdue public health safeguard that marks the beginning of the end of those regulatory loopholes in 38 states that have for decades allowed big polluters to dump huge amounts of off-the-books harmful air pollution onto neighboring communities with impunity.

The new Clean Air Act protection -- called the Startup, Shutdown and Malfunction (SSM) Emissions standard -- will help protect some of society's most vulnerable communities from big polluters. It reflects many years of hard work from citizen and environmental groups and legal advocates across the country, and stems from a 2011 Sierra Club petition and years of pressure by environmental justice organizations like CFEJ urging EPA to initiate a rule-making to redress the widespread problems.

This is a jaw-dropper -- some industrial facilities, such as coal plants and oil refineries, often release more toxic pollution at times of startup, shutdown and malfunctions than they emit during normal operations throughout the entire year, presenting major health risks to people with asthma, children and seniors who are just trying to go about their daily business. The toxics that pour out during these incidents can instigate asthma attacks, exacerbate conditions like bronchitis and emphysema, and contribute to thousands of premature deaths annually.

In Corpus Christi, Canales and CFEJ organized for safeguards that would curb pollution from routine day-in day-out emissions, pushed for enforcement of laws that were routinely violated and raised attention to the problems of all the upsets, malfunctions and flaring events that poured toxics into the air of her community -- and she took her fight about industrial emissions and closing the SSM loophole straight to the top.

During a one-on-one meeting with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010, she promptly voiced her dismay at the level of governmental neglect shown to the most vulnerable communities. And she wasn't alone. Over the last 30 years activists from so many affected communities organized, spoke out, went to court and amped up the pressure in the fight for environmental justice.

Today, they scored a victory on the long road to real environmental justice with the new SSM standard. In the 38 states where this loophole was exploited in communities like Corpus Christi, polluters will be reined in, the air will be cleaner and kids can breathe easier.

Said Canales:

For decades industrial plants have received a free pass from the Clean Air Act every time they have upsets or malfunctions. These emissions create giant plumes of pollution that make our eyes water and pollute our communities.

I'm glad the EPA is finally pushing states to address this problem. Children walking to and from school must be protected from off-the-book emissions from big facilities.

EPA's action is just the beginning of a long road ahead until fenceline communities can finally breathe cleaner air. The rule establishes a deadline of 18 months for states to propose fixes to their rules that are consistent with the statute. And after EPA approves a state's rules, each facility's permit will need to be modified. Still, closing the SSM loopholes is a great step forward to ensure that all people have access to clean air and water, no matter where they live or who they are.