‘The Biggest Challenge Was Not Being Heard’

A conversation with Washington activist who helped stop North America’s largest oil terminal project.

For Linda Garcia, the people of the hardscrabble neighborhood of Fruit Valley in the City of Vancouver, Washington where she raised her two kids to adulthood are family. And she loves them something fierce. Fruit Valley, which sits literally on the other side of the train tracks from the rest of Vancouver, is home to the deepwater Port of Vancouver that has long served as a shipping hub for the Pacific Northwest’s lumber industry. Due to the heavy industrial activity in the area, the community’s racially diverse, low-income population also suffers from the worst air quality in the city. So in 2013, when Garcia heard that plans were afoot to build a massive new terminal at the port that would transport coal, oil, and natural gas to West Coast refineries for export to Asian markets, it got her worried.

photo of linda garcia
Linda Garcia fought for four years to defeat the Tesoro Savage terminal at the Port of Vancouver, which would have brought more industry to Vancouver neighborhoods that already suffer from the worst air quality in the city. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

As she and her colleagues at the Fruitvale Neighborhood Association began to poke around for more information, they learned that the Texas-based conglomerate Tesoro, which was proposing the project, already owed $10 million in fines for air pollution and $720,000 for safety violations in nearby Anacortes, Washington, after seven workers died in its refinery there in 2010. They also learned that if constructed, the $210 million Tesoro Savage project would be the largest oil terminal in North America and would draw five trains to the port daily, each a mile-and-a-half long and carrying some 11 million gallons of oil all the way from North Dakota through four states and through the Columbia River Gorge Natural Scenic Area. These details prompted Garcia to launch a citizen-led campaign to stop the project.

For four long years, Garcia worked tirelessly, attending endless meetings with community members, union reps, environmental groups, lawyers, businessowners, and city and state legislators. She testified at public hearings as a key community witness and supported election campaigns of community members who ran for port commission seats. She did all this even while battling with cancer — often travelling directly from a chemo session to a community meeting — and even though she was receiving death threats on a regular basis.

The campaign against Tesoro Savage ended on a high note — in January 2018, following the recommendation of Washington’s Energy Facility Evaluation Council (EFSEC), Governor Jay Inslee denied approval for necessary project permits. The following month, Tesoro and the port agreed to terminate the company’s lease, effectively canceling all plans for the oil terminal in Vancouver.

But Garcia, who received a Goldman Environmental Prize this past April for her courage and persistent opposition of the project, warns that the fight isn’t over yet.

“There really isn't time to rest,” she told me, “because every day that we rest [the corporations] get two more days on us with all of their power and all of their resources ... So, let’s keep up the charge!”

I believe you first learned about the coal terminal because of the neighborhood association that you were part of?

Yes. I was secretary of the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association, and with that role comes the responsibility to kind of look out for what's going on in the neighborhood and to kind of be a liaison between the neighborhood and the city and also the Port of Vancouver, which sits squarely within the Fruit Valley neighborhood boundaries.

What prompted you to join the association in the first place?

My community is always been like a like a big family to me and any family has dysfunction in it, and any family has issues. The best way to [take care of these issues] is to become involved in your neighborhood. As you might imagine a lot of people don't want to be in that position. It's, you know, easier just to step back and not become involved, for any number of reasons. I did that for multiple years, but I finally decided it was time— my kids were nearly grown up — to start looking outward and figure out how I can help and be of assistance in my own community.

In fighting this project, you must have worked with a lot of different stakeholders, but you know different kinds of people different, government entities companies. What part of it did you find the most challenging?

Talking and not being heard. Trying to get the voice of everybody and their concerns to the right people. Trying to make sure that any questions that came up or answered by the correct people, but there was massive communication breakdown to the point of doors being closed.  You can't solve a problem if you don't have a good line of communication. I think the second biggest challenge that kind of goes right along with that is finding the right people to talk to, finding the right people to get help from.

So the doors that got shut, did you manage to open them?

I think we did. (laughs) I think the outcome kind of proves that. Actually, that's maybe not the right answer. I think maybe the doors that were closed. I just learned how to circumvent them. I just found other windows or other doors. I crawled in and dug my way through until I did find the right people.

How did you manage to balance battling cancer, which can be very debilitating, while doing this kind of work?

To me, the fight that I took on was a lot larger than my own personal fight. This was about an entire community. It was about an entire region. It wasn't just about me, and so it was very easy to push through those pieces when I knew that there was something much larger at stake.

So in a way, it gave you a reason to keep going?

Yes. Absolutely.

Did you find being a being a woman activist was helpful or an obstacle?

I think women felt more comfortable coming in talking to me. So if there were any benefit, I think that was the biggest. And I get that. It is a huge challenge being a woman activist because men typically, in this battle in particular, do the there there. It's okay! And that's not fair and it's not okay. [I had] to try and break past those obstacles of being told that we don't know as much. Things like: You don't have the proper education. You don't you don't know what you're talking about. You don't work in this field.

I don't have to work in the field to know that our lives are at risk; to know that my community can be destroyed. I didn't need to be gender identified for any of that. I'm a human and everybody else that I was fighting for are humans.

So it is a challenge. I think we're gaining ground as women. I think we're making sure that we're heard now. I'll continue to do that. I don't have a problem making my voice heard.

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“I'm human and everybody else that I was fighting for are humans,” Garcia says. She notes that though her community succeeded in defeating the Tesoro Savage terminal, the war against fossil fuel infrastructure in the region isn't over yet. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

When the project was finally scrapped one of the first things you're often quoted as saying is: “The first mistake they made was talking down to us.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

Fruit Valley is a very diverse neighborhood. It's blue-collar, hardworking, socioeconomically depressed and oppressed. And with that oppression comes the general idea to stereotype and say that we are not educated; we are not smart.

Actually, a very good number of people who live there are college educated. We just chose to set down roots there because there was a community connectedness. So it was a mistake for them to use that stereotype and make the assumption that we didn't know what we were going to do.

We didn't have a lot of money and we didn't have a lot of the resources that the oil companies had, but we had the power of the people. We had the community kind of linking arms and standing strong together and building and building and building. And the more we mobilized, the more we organized, the stronger that support became. We held each other up when we fell down. When you have two people and one stumbles, the other one is probably going to stumble and go down too. But when one person stumbles in a line of 3,000, you are probably not going to feel the effects of it.

There has been a huge effort over the past decade or more to develop coal and gas export terminals along the West Coast and many communities, including yours, have been fighting these proposals. Did you connect with any these other communities during your struggle? And are you still in conversation with any of those folks? Because, this struggle isn’t over yet, right?

Thank you for recognizing that! It isn't over. I've been telling people multiple times over the past weeks that we may have won the battle that we haven't won the war yet. We have a bull's-eye right on our backs in the area in which I live and in that region.

Overall, there are still ongoing projects. There are still places at struggle. We're still being looked at, believe it or not, as an area to site different types of fossil fuel industry. The commodity is not dead unfortunately.

So we do work collaboratively with the others. I work all throughout Southwest Washington. Right now, we're stepping up the fight against the largest methanol terminal to come in, and that's in Kalama, Washington. There's Jordan Cove in Coos Bay, Oregon, which I'm sure you're aware of. That's a very long drawn-out battle as well. The Port of St. Helens [in Columbia County, Oregon] just extended some policy to allow more oil trains to come in and to create a larger oil by rail terminal, which we just got done fighting and they're directly connected to us. And we do still have room at our ports for industry.

So, it's a constant battle. But more than that, it's a constant struggle to keep up communication, and to try and change policy; to try and change the way that our leaders think; to try and reshape their vision; to help them become aware of the dangers and of the unsustainability of fossil fuel projects. [Fossil fuels are] not going to be around forever. We need to look for cleaner and greener resources that not only have more viability, but that are safer for people, safer for our planet.

There is this concern that the Trump Administration would circumvent state laws by exerting federal power over ports in order to boost the fossil fuel industry. One of the things it is trying to do in this regard is alter the rules so that ports are treated like railroads, which would then bring it under the federal commerce department. Is this something that’s on your radar?

Yeah. Trust me, we are watching and we're watching with caution and with great concern. Washington ports are public ports, so we own them. And we are constantly reminding all of our commissioners that there's a sense of accountability that they have toward us. But that may very well be taken away if the current administration at the national level were to do something like that.

We could easily be right back in the same situation that we were in pre Tesoro because there is no policy in place [to protect us from new fossil fuel infrastructure projects]. If we can create and implement policy at a local level, it would be harder for a national level administration to come in and set down new guidelines and thresholds. But until that happens we can't be assured that it that we won't be in that same spot.

So my job right now is working on getting a resolution created for the Port of Vancouver and then getting an ordinance created for the City of Vancouver. An ordinance that is very strongly worded and is permanent, that says there will be no new fossil fuel infrastructure in the city.

It must be difficult, this feeling that it's not ended, that you have to keep going. So what's carrying you through? What is it in the work that you're doing that brings you some joy?

I think a couple of things. I go to the mountains as often as I can. Backcountry hiking specifically, where I can get away from things for a while, has always been a big part of my life. I get to go out there and rejuvenate and re-energize. When I'm up there, I can look around and I can see all of the sacred space. I need to protect that. I feel that sense of balance when I'm there that I don't necessarily have in the city, and I want my children to feel that, and I want my children's children to feel that. And I want others to feel that we have a gift in this planet. We have to protect that gift at all costs or we'll lose it.

There are other parts of my life [that give me joy]. I'm currently [managing] a congressional campaign and seeing people getting re-energized around possible change in environmental law through progressive candidates has been amazing.

Knowing that everything aligns, you know, pushing the social justice and the environmental justice button so that everything coalesces, and helping people to understand that they're all interconnected, I know that sounds like work, but that's not work for me. That's my heart, that's my drive, and that's my passion. It's what I live for.

This interview has been edited for length.

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