Keystone XL's top tar sands customers. In return, activists have desperately tried to make Valero synonymous with tar sands and Keystone XL, launching hunger strikes, public protest, and organizing in refinery neighborhoods.
Some young protestors grew sick of shouting and sign-carrying by the time construction on Keystone XL began last August. They started locking themselves to machines to stall the pipeline.
Last November outside Wells, sheriff's deputies pepper-sprayed four men who locked themselves to pipe-laying equipment. Authorities broke them loose after hours of consternation, leading them away in handcuffs, one with a foot-long strand of snot dripping from his face. It was one of over a dozen actions that took place at pipeline construction sites late last year.
"Stopping the infrastructure is the reason our campaign exists," says Ron Seifert, an activist with the Tar Sands Blockade group.
But as efforts ramped up in the East Texas woods, blockaders also began organizing in the neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel, an area long clouded by petrochemical haze. With local environmental justice groups, they started giving tours of the nearby refineries. They particularly took to Manchester, a small Hispanic enclave that lies in the shadow of Valero's Houston refinery.
"We found a community that's been oppressed for decades," Seifert asserts. Blockaders decided they wouldn't just target the pipeline, but the refiners, too. They started filming, photographing, and interviewing families, hearing common fence-line community ailments: headaches, respiratory problems, asthma, rashes, and cancer. Yudith Nieto, 25, a lifelong resident of Manchester who started organizing with the blockaders, says, "Almost everyone I know here has trouble breathing."
On November 29, the blockaders escalated. Diane Wilson, a longtime environmental justice and jail reform activist, locked her neck to an oil tanker truck with a bicycle U-lock. Friend and fellow activist Bob Lindsey Jr. did the same. "Quite frankly, the Gulf Coast is a sacrifice zone," Wilson told the Current once released from the Harris County jail. "I have no time for holding hands, walking around in circles, and demonstrating. There has to be pressure."
The initial stated goal was to disrupt oil coming into the Valero refinery; the company says Wilson and Lindsey were not on Valero property and questions whether they were even locked to trucks destined for its refinery. In jail, Wilson and Lindsey began what would become a 46-day hunger strike. Their demands: that Valero end its support of the Keystone XL pipeline and reject any oil from the pipeline in the future. The wish list evolved. They wanted Valero to clean up and compensate Manchester, and then they wanted Valero to pull out of the community entirely.
Valero spokesman Bill Day readily dismisses the effort. "Pretty much everything they have said about it (Keystone XL), about our refinery and the refining process has been incorrect," he says. "At first we thought they were misguided and a little naïve. But now they're actually spreading misinformation."