Unstoppable force, immovable object
Can Lummi Nation fishing rights coexist with the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal? Officials from the Crow Nation in Montana – who intend to export coal overseas through the terminal – disagree with the Lummi Tribe of Washington on this issue.
For Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, the answer to the question is “yes.” Speaking from his office in Crow Agency, he drew a sketch of the terminal site at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, Wash., showing its location between an aluminum smelter facility and oil refinery. Industrial operations in the area, he said, are nothing new as it has been set aside for that very purpose.
Concern over sacred sites
“The Lummi are coming in, [saying], ‘Our fishing rights are going to deteriorate. We’re not going to have any fish left. The sky is falling,’” he said. “The fact of the matter is there are current exports going on at the site.”
In a Dec. 2 letter to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Old Coyote addressed the Lummi assertion that the terminal would harm their sacred sites, stating: “This claim stuns me.” A full review of the site as accorded by the National Environmental Policy Act, the letter stated, would ensure the terminal would have “absolutely no impact on sacred sites.”
A graphic of the Gateway Pacific Terminal by cargo company and designer SSA Marine indicates shows the terminal’s railcar unloaders, silos and conveyers will be covered to prevent the spread of coal dust into the surrounding atmosphere. In addition, water cannons will contain coal dust in the terminal’s open bulk storage and SSA Marine will install dust suppression systems for cargo loading equipment. The graphic states the terminal will have an “extensive natural buffer” of land area, over 80 percent of which will remain untouched.
An Environmental Impact Statement on the terminal’s feasibility, arranged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is slated for release in March 2016.
“We believe the science will prove that the project is permissible,” said Bob Watters, senior vice president of SSA Marine, “and that there are few or no impacts, and the ones that [do exist] can be mitigated.”
Despite SSA Marine’s assurances, members of the Lummi Tribe, whose reservation is located 20 miles south of the Canadian border, believe the terminal construction holds more dire consequences. Cherry Point, also known as Xwe’chi’eXen, is a Lummi ancestral village and burial ground believed to date back at least 3,500 years.
The area is also believed to be the birthplace of reef-netting, a traditional Lummi fishing method where salmon are caught on the way to their spawning beds using a holding net suspended between canoes. The fish, sometimes by the thousands, are guided with artificial reefs traditionally created using cedar bark and nettle fibers. Reef-net fishing is being done off the coast of Cherry Point today, along with more modernized fishing methods.
The Lummi outlook was expressed on Sept. 21, 2012 when they protested the proposed terminal by burning a large, fake check stamped “Non-Negotiable” with a sum of “not even millions unlimited” and zero cents.
Opposition to shipping terminals also has been voiced to government agencies over the past three years in letters from the Oregon-based Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission and Northwest tribes including the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Tulalip Tribes and Yakama Nation.
“We are, and always have been, a fishing people. We rely on fish for our survival. We rely on fish for our culture. We rely on fish for our Schelangen – our traditional way of life,” Lummi Chairman Timothy Ballew II wrote in an Aug. 3 letter to Montana Sen. Steve Daines. “I can assure you, that if the Lummi Nation’s Treaty Fishing Rights are jeopardized by any efforts to allow the project to proceed, we will fight vigorously by all means necessary.”
This is not to say all letters opposed the project. On his blog alone, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont. collected dozens of letters – some from Northwestern sources – sent in support of the project to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy.
So far, Old Coyote wrote in his letter, all efforts to contact opposing Northwest tribes “have been met with stony silence and rejection.”
Attempts made to halt permitting
An attempt by the Lummi to preemptively halt the terminal’s permitting process was stopped on Dec. 3 as part of an amendment to a wide-ranging energy bill approved 249-174 in a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Lummi efforts, if supported, would have resulted in the Army Corps of Engineers discontinuing their Environmental Impact Statement for the terminal and cutting the project before its feasibility was officially determined. The energy bill amendment was co-sponsored by both Zinke and Rep. David McKinley, R-W. Va. According to data gathered in 2013 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, West Virginia is ranked second in national coal production and Montana is ranked seventh.
“[This is] not about two tribes. It’s about fairness of the process,” Zinke said about the amendment during a Dec. 2 congressional meeting. “It would be unprecedented for the Army Corps of Engineers or any government body to give judgement before the process is complete, and that’s what we’re asking for. The EIS is the process that needs to be done.”
While the Lummi didn’t return a request for comment, Jessie Dye, program outreach director for Earth Ministry in Seattle, explained why she believes the McKinley-Zinke amendment shouldn’t have passed. As a faith-centered entity of the Power Past Coal campaign who vocally supports the Lummi viewpoint, her organization helped gather 370,000 comments opposed to coal exports across the Pacific Ocean.
According to Dye, the effects of coal dust and railcar spills on the area’s environment and people from what she considers an outdated fuel would be catastrophic.
“I believe it’s important as Americans and as people of faith that we acknowledge the traditional life and treaty rights of the Native people,” she said. “I think there’s an imperative for the Army Corps to deny this, both legal and moral.”
Gateway Pacific Terminal partnership
The proposed terminal, whose early planning stages began in February 2012, is a 54 million metric ton system designed to handle coal from Gillette, Wyo.-based mining company Cloud Peak Energy in addition to grain and potash. If constructed, the terminal would be co-owned by SSA Marine and Cloud Peak at a 51 and 49 percent split respectively.
Their partnership started on Aug. 13, 2015 with a $2 million deposit by Cloud Peak who also agreed to pay future permitting expenses up to $30 million. Additionally, the Crow Tribe has the option to secure 5 percent of Cloud Peak’s share at a buy-in cost to be decided if and when the Army Corps of Engineers grants project approval.
Increase in revenue
A February 2014 report by Joseph P. Kalt of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, estimates that a West Coast port would increase tribal coal revenue by 426 percent. Mining on the Crow Reservation by Westmoreland Coal Company’s Absaloka Mine, as stated in the report, generated $89 million in 2013 or one-fifth of the county’s gross regional product.
According to the report, success of the tribe’s partnership with Cloud Peak through their Big Metal Coal Company will be largely contingent on gaining access to a West Coast port to sell their coal overseas.
Forecasting future coal production
While Dye thinks the Crow Tribe will only benefit from fossil fuels in the short-term, Kalt writes that their success over the coming decades, “will hinge critically on whether or not the Crow Nation’s coal can continue to be mined and developed.”
“From 2010 to 2040, [Energy Information Administration] projections show that world coal consumption will increase at an average rate of 1.3 percent annually,” the report states, “while coal consumption in the U.S. is anticipated to remain flat.”
As the debate continues, one thing is certain: SSA Marine – who has established terminals across all three American continents, South Africa, Vietnam and New Zealand – definitely has their work cut out for them.
“The terminal itself is not any more difficult than usual,” Watters said. “The process itself is the most difficult we’ve been involved in.”