Skip to main content

Stories are what kept Linda Garcia, 51, going as she fought what would have been North America's largest oil-by-rail terminal from coming to her neighborhood of Fruit Valley in Vancouver, Washington.

Garcia traveled sometimes directly from chemotherapy sessions to community meetings, where she never missed the chance to testify against the Tesoro Savage project. All the while, she'd remember the families with young children who told her they didn't want to be pushed out, or the couple well into their 90s who had been living in Fruit Valley since they got married at 19. "How can I not fight for that?" she asked.

Garcia is one of six winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest award in the world for grassroots environmental activists, given by San Francisco's Goldman Environmental Foundation. The other winners this year are Bayarjargal Agvaantseren of Mongolia, who defended the habitat of snow leopards; Liberian forest protector Alfred Brownell; Ana Colovic Lesoska of North Macedonia, who stopped hydropower projects in a national park; the Chilean indigenous activist Alberto Curamil; and Jacqueline Evans of the Cook Islands, a campaigner for marine biodiversity.

Garcia calls Fruit Valley, the westernmost neighborhood in Vancouver, a "close-knit" and diverse community, "separated from the rest of the city and county by a very large set of railroad tracks." "It is quite literally is the other side of the tracks, which we embrace," she says. "We don't look at that in a negative manner in the way some do." The Port of Vancouver sits squarely inside the neighborhood's boundaries. Due to heavy industrial activity in the area, Fruit Valley has been affected by the negative impacts of manufacturing such as poor air quality.

A longtime Fruit Valley resident, Garcia first learned of the Tesoro Savage project in April of 2013, while she was serving as an officer in the Fruit Valley Neighborhood Association. At first, "we weren't suspicious of anything," she said, but she and neighbors did more research, and "concern grew."

The oil-shipping terminal would have moved 11 million gallons of oil each day through the area on five mile-and-a-half-long trains. The risks posed by the project's operations would have included "harmful air and water emissions, harm to fish and wildlife species, and increased greenhouse gas emissions," according to Earthjustice. The sheer amount of oil being transported would also bring the risk of catastrophic oil spills and explosions.

In 2016, oil company Tesoro (now Andeavor) agreed to pay over $10.4 million in penalties for Clean Air Act violations at multiple refineries in a settlement with the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA fined the company for safety violations at its refinery in nearby Anacortes, Washington, the same year.

Garcia rallied residents, but knew there was no way, as a small neighborhood, Fruit Valley could win on its own. "We didn't have the money. We didn't have the resources, but we have the people and the passion and we needed to power up," she told CityLab. Ultimately, they garnered the support of groups like the local chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Columbia Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. "It took a long time, but mobilizing the kind of ground troops is really what pushed this battle further and grew larger," Garcia said.

Starting in 2015, Garcia said, she received death threats. But victory eventually came, in a series of three decisions. In November of 2017, Washington's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council issued an environmental impact statement saying that the project posed "significant, unavoidable harms" to both the environment and community. It was welcome news, but "we were still in the waiting-for-the-other-shoe to drop phase," as Garcia put it.

After that, the EFSEC panel voted unanimously to recommend that Washington State deny the permit for the oil terminal. Finally, in January of 2018, Governor Jay Inslee denied the permits necessary for the project, and that's when Fruit Valley knew it was over.

"It was so overwhelming," Garcia said. "For so many years, we had fought so long and so hard and it always seemed like something would come up when we would get even a sliver of hope ... and kind of shove us back down."

For Garcia, what followed the numbness was elation and disbelief: "Wow, we did this. The power of the people was stronger than the power of money and greed." When she would testify, Garcia consistently drove home the message that "there is no invisible wall surrounding Fruit Valley" and that "the emissions [and] any potential disasters, from oil trains to terminal explosions" would have wide-ranging effects.

The Goldman Prize has been awarded every year since 1990. Past winners include LeeAnne Walters, who helped expose the Flint water crisis, and Berta Cáceres, the slain Honduran indigenous leader and activist. Recipients are selected by an international jury from nominations, and "are often women and men from isolated villages or inner cities who choose to take great personal risks to safeguard the environment," according to the Goldman Environmental Foundation website. Winners receive financial support to pursue their environmental causes.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.