Former Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association Secretary Linda Garcia and Port of Vancouver USA Commissioner Eric LaBrant reflect on stopping the North America's largest proposed oil-by-rail terminal.
Superheroes v. Big Oil
*Spoiler Alert: Superheroes Win
On January 29, 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee rejected the largest proposed oil train terminal in the United States. Riverkeeper’s Lauren Goldberg sat down with Port of Vancouver USA Commissioner Eric LaBrant, who ran for office in part to protect Vancouver from Tesoro’s oil-by-rail project, and community activist and former Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association Secretary Linda Garcia, to reflect on the epic victory.
After the Tesoro victory, you said, “Their first mistake was in trying to talk down to us.” How did you respond?
Linda Garcia: I fought back. Fruit Valley (located near the proposed oil-by-rail terminal) demographics have traditionally been very diverse and low-income. Blue collar does not mean inarticulate; it means we’re in lines of work that don’t pay as well as others. The root of the entire battle was money. Tesoro had it. They used money to gain favor and control. Tesoro assumed people who weren’t wealthy weren’t capable of resources. They learned a large and very public lesson about making assumptions.
Tell us about the Fruit Valley Neighborhood.
Eric LaBrant: Fruit Valley is a historic blue-collar neighborhood built to house shipyard workers in World War I, prune packers in the 20’s and 30’s, and Kaiser ship builders in World War II. It’s separated from downtown Vancouver to the east by the rail yard, so it’s kind of a hidden gem. The houses are older and smaller than newer parts of town, and the elementary school was designed to look a little like a barn or farmhouse, so it has a sort of hidden-gem charm. On the southwestern edge is the Port, and Vancouver Lake is to the northwest, so the neighborhood is clearly delineated as its own unique place.
What drove your passion to protect Vancouver and other Columbia River communities from oil-by-rail?
Linda Garcia: For me it was very personal. I lived less than half-of-a-mile from the proposed facility. I was concerned about my family, my friends, and my community. We are taught from a young age to look after those around us. That’s where my heart has always been. I grew up a few miles from an oil town in Delaware. The accidents, the smells, the fear. I have incredibly vivid memories of that. The more research I did about Tesoro—oil accidents, air pollution hazards—made me more passionate about this not happening to Vancouver. Somebody had to do it. And I needed to stand up and scream at the top of my lungs until somebody heard me.
What was the top reason you fought the Tesoro Savage proposal?
Eric LaBrant: Having worked in an offshore oil field years ago, and knowing that the site was just a mile from my house, I had some very specific questions about health and safety. Originally, I just wanted a candid discussion about safety, but that turned into flat-out opposition when I couldn’t get clear answers to basic questions.
What’s your favorite memory from the Tesoro fight?
Linda Garcia: Dan (Serres, Riverkeeper’s conservation director,) drove several of us in a van to Olympia to hear the Energy Council’s recommendation to Governor Inslee. We were a quiet bunch on the drive up. When the Council voted unanimously to send the ‘no’ recommendation to the governor, it was the first time in five long, exhausting years that I saw a glimmer of hope. Alona, another community activist, and I started crying and hugging each other. I thought, “Wow, we made a difference.”
Community organizing means different things to different people. What did community organizing look like for you in five-plus years you spent fighting Tesoro?
Linda Garcia: Organizing means activism. And activism is all about community—stepping up and being part of a solution. This fight morphed over the five years. It did not look at the end like it did in the beginning. It began as a very small group of concerned neighborhood leaders. As time marched on it grew into a region-wide rallying cry. At the hyper-local level we knew we needed help early on. I knew we couldn’t win alone. We sought support from other organizations—including Riverkeeper—who provided much needed muscle, legal guidance and representation, and larger scale presence and visibility.
Why run for Port Commissioner?
Eric LaBrant: The edge of Port property is about a hundred yards from my front door. On maps of the Port, I can literally point to my home. The Port brings a huge amount of value and economic growth to the region, and I wanted to make sure those living nearby aren’t being negatively impacted in the process.
It’s been educational for my kids, too. They’re teenagers now, but were eight and ten when the proposal first came to light, so it’s been a big part of their childhood. They’ve learned about local government, advocacy, and have even spoken at a couple of meetings. There’s nothing quite as educational as first-hand experience, and decisionmakers love hearing first-hand from kids. It always bugs me a little when kids got up to say something they’d clearly been coached to say by parents, so I never told them what to say, but have always encouraged them to speak from their own perspective. They’re the ones who’ll be dealing with the aftermath of climate change and environmental degradation, so there’s already some attitude on their part of “get it together, folks.” And they speak confidently, knowing the folks in suits they’re talking to are just regular folks like their dad.
Obviously, we don’t want our policymakers to have conflicts of interest, but I’ve always known going into the campaign and election that I’d reap the intangible rewards of living in a healthy, prosperous community. And I think our region has had a number of elected officials who see it that way—that we reap what we sow.
As an elected official who listens to public testimony, what tips do you have for Riverkeeper’s members?
Eric LaBrant: The most important thing to remember is that your voice matters! You don’t have to be smooth or polished to make a difference. We want to understand real-world impacts, and that’s tough to get from looking at revenue forecasts and job numbers. Sharing your perspective helps us make better decisions.
Also, I get nervous every time I testify! My first-ever EFSEC (Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council) hearing, my phone died right before I was called up, so I was standing there sweating and of course my mind completely went blank. Ever since then, I’ve tried to print out my testimony on actual paper and turn in copies to the body I’m speaking to. It helps me feel more prepared.
And if you’re nervous, go with a friend, and know that you’re going to be in a room with lots of kind, warm-hearted people. Who doesn’t love that?
What are your views on Riverkeeper’s approach to protecting the Columbia from fossil fuels?
Linda Garcia: Riverkeeper—they are the true heroes. They didn’t just care about the Columbia River, they cared about the community. They worked in our community, mobilizing volunteer help and providing resources and support that we wouldn't have had otherwise. They stepped up in an incredibly bold way. They were there for us through it all.
Your Port bio states that you “prioritize[e] policies that promotes equity, environmental stewardship, and Vancouver’s competitive advantages of livability, education and collaboration.” Explain your current work to promote equity.
Eric LaBrant: The Port provides tremendous economic benefit to the community, but I feel like we can only call that success if those benefits accrue to the entire community, not just certain groups or demographics.
Within our organization, it’s about continuously challenging leadership to improve the diversity of our team, and reminding the team that we gain a stronger, more adaptable and innovative organization if we have people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Last year we hired our first-ever female CEO in our century-plus history. It’s a good milestone, but there’s more work to be done. Our new Strategic Plan includes “Actively promote employee diversity.” This is locked in as a priority for us going forward.
Finally for myself personally, I’ve taken the pledge at https://www.owen.org/pledge to not be part of any male-only panels.
Share your favorite story from the five-year fight to protect Vancouver and other Columbia River communities from the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal.
Eric LaBrant: If I have to pick one in particular, it’s probably the massive city council meeting to discuss a statement of opposition against the proposal. Over 600 people showed up, and the council stayed until the wee hours of the morning, and voted to oppose that same evening. It was an impressive demonstration, not only of the community’s involvement and concern, but also of the council’s willingness to listen until everyone had been heard. And while I had expected a more moderate position statement, the council’s resolution was very strong indeed.
Now that the Tesoro executives have packed up their briefcases and left town, what is your latest passion project?
Linda Garcia: I’m working for Washington Environmental Council now. I’m working with a new community group, the Alliance for Community engagement, which Riverkeeper is part of. We want to move forward and our focus is engagement with government bodies that can make decisions that affect our community.
Is there anything else you want to share with Riverkeeper’s members?
Linda Garcia: You can’t give up. For me, this (i.e., the Tesoro oil-by-rail fight) was not about winning. It was about being heard. The most important piece was to make sure people who are marginalized have a seat at the larger table to decisionmaking and democracy. If we all band together and create the largest voice possible, then we can win what’s best for the community. The best possible outcome can only happen when you raise your voice.
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