Northwest tribal leaders fight for government to uphold treaties

Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon speaks at the rally.
Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon speaks at the rally. Photo courtesy Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Board of Director.



Lummi Nation Chairman Tim Ballew II and other leaders rally in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, to oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export primarily coal and expand railways. Ballew says that the project would disregard treaty rights and harm the environment. Grace Toohey McClatchy



BY GRACE TOOHEY, Bellingham Herald


WASHINGTON – A proposed coal terminal and affiliated railway for Cherry Point, Wash., has sparked concern about treaty violations and environmental degradation for many Pacific Northwest tribal leaders, 10 of whom rallied together in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning against what they said is government disregard for their treaties.

About a block from the White House, three Lummi Nation sisters crooned a song referencing the 1855 U.S. treaty with Pacific Northwest Native American tribes, reserving certain rights for their fishing, hunting and sacred grounds. “What about those promises? Fills my heart with sadness, I can’t do this on my own, we’ve got to come together and be strong,” the women sang.

But Tim Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said those rights are in jeopardy.

“All the tribes are standing here today in solidarity to protect not just our reservation community but everybody’s community from the impacts that cannot be mitigated,” Ballew said, standing in front of leaders from the Tulalip, Swinomish, Quinault, Lower Elwha Klallam, Yakama, Hoopa Valley, Nooksack and Spokane nations and the president of United South and Eastern Tribes.

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, a subsidy of SSA Marine, would act as a trading hub between landlocked domestic companies and markets in Asia, said Joe Ritzman, vice president of business development for SSA Marine. The deepwater terminal would handle up to 60 million tons of commodities, primarily coal, and the project would coincide with a railway expansion.


But the project’s designated land includes burial sites for Lummi ancestors and artifacts, Ballew said, and the coastal development would harm age-old fishing traditions within the tribe.

“The location of the pier will take away fishing grounds and the increase in vessel traffic would impede access of our fishermen to fishing grounds throughout our usual and accustomed areas,” Ballew said.

Washington state, Whatcom County and the federal government are reviewing the environmental impacts of the proposed export terminal and associated rail expansion, expecting to release state-local and federal environmental impact statements in 2017. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the federal review agency, is also inspecting Native American treaty rights at play.

“Our current focus is the impact on treaty fishing rights, and it’s the government’s responsibility to uphold the treaty,” Ballew said.

The Lummi Tribe, whose reservation is minutes from Cherry Point, entered the Treaty of Point Elliot more than 150 years ago, which ensured the sovereign nation right to “fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.”

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, said his tribe has faced similar treaty battles in Oregon, most recently when the governor halted a proposed coal export plant near their sacred ground and Columbia River fisheries. But now that decision is under appeal, putting their treaty rights at stake again, Goudy said.

“The recognition from us collectively (is) that those reserved rights go hand in hand with our sustained existence as peoples,” Goudy said. “A direct attack on such things, in our hearts and minds, is a direct attack on our sustained existence.”

Not only would the Gateway Pacific Terminal affect the Lummi Nation, Goudy explained, but the proposed railways would transport coal by the Yakama Nation’s portion of the Columbia River.

“This issue affects all of us, we’re connected in ways that the U.S cannot even imagine,” said Tyson Johnson, council member of Nooksack Indian Tribe.

SSA Marine will wait until the state, county and federal environmental reports come out, Ritzman said. But with plans for mitigation strategies and a 75 percent natural buffer of the 1,500 acres for the project, Ritzman said he expects his company’s proposal to meet all state and federal environmental requirements and not impact the fisheries.

President Barack Obama and his administration met with the tribal leaders and many more Thursday afternoon as a part of the White House Tribal Nations Conference.

“I credit the current administration for every year building on our efforts to help us rebuild our nations and I encourage them to continue that,” Ballew said. “We really want them to give this issue its due respect. It’s a human rights issue, it’s a treaty rights issue, and we need our sacred sites protected.”

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Lummi tribe says talk of Cherry Point land grab is a fabrication



BY RALPH SCHWARTZ, The Bellingham Herald


A nonprofit with close ties to a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point is telling local and federal agencies that Lummi Nation plans to take over part or all of Cherry Point in an effort to “de-industrialize” an area that already includes two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter.

Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew called the claim a fabrication and a distraction from the tribe’s effort to halt Gateway Pacific Terminal through an exercise of its treaty rights to fish near Cherry Point and elsewhere in north Puget Sound.

“There’s just no way they could be blowing the cover on some plan we don’t have,” Ballew said.

Northwest Jobs Alliance wrote to the Whatcom County Planning Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month, asking them to oppose a tribal takeover of Cherry Point.

“It has come to our attention that there are those who would de-industrialize the Cherry Point (industrial area), but this rather radical notion would not serve the public interest,” the Alliance wrote in an Aug. 12 letter to the Planning Commission. The letter was signed by Chairman John Huntley and President Brad Owens.

Not named in the letter was Craig Cole, who is listed in the state’s corporations database as the director of the Northwest Jobs Alliance. Cole also was hired to do public relations for Gateway Pacific Terminal’s proponent, SSA Marine.

Cole said on Friday, Sept. 11, he is one of more than 100 members of the Alliance.

“I am one of the directors and support its focus on family-wage job growth and retention,” Cole said, along with “the continued viability of the Cherry Point industrial area.”

The Alliance delivered its message to the public in a press release on Thursday, Sept. 10.

The release refers to “a plan by the Lummi Nation to annex Cherry Point to its reservation.” The Alliance equivocates on just how much land it believes the tribe would take, but in some of its statements the group assumes the worst.

“It would decimate the job and tax base of the county, in particular the budgets of the Ferndale and Blaine school districts and Fire District 7, for which Cherry Point industries carry much of the tax load,” Huntley said in the release.

“While the Lummi people themselves and their treaty rights deserve great respect, this ploy to snatch nontribal land is just plain wrong,” the Alliance said in an Aug. 20 letter to the Corps.

The Alliance points to a single page that it claims is a “Lummi Nation planning document” from 2012. The page describes a strategy that includes defeating the coal terminal, acquiring Cherry Point and placing it in trust.

Tribes can ask the federal government to acquire properties and hold them in trust for tribal use, even land outside a tribe’s reservation.

Lummi Chairman Ballew reviewed the document and said it did not come from the tribe.

“What they presented definitely has not been produced by the Nation,” he said.

Owens didn’t answer directly when asked by a reporter if the Alliance believed Lummi Nation wanted to tear down existing industries at Cherry Point.

“The indicators are that they’re in opposition to growth at Cherry Point, and that their goal is to acquire Cherry Point property and have it placed in trust,” Owens said.

Cole said the documented evidence of the tribe’s intentions said “in an unambiguous way” that the tribe is intent on taking Cherry Point land.

“Some of it is pretty direct,” he said.

Documents used by the Alliance to support its claim include a 2012 resolution by the Lummi Indian Business Council to acquire Cherry Point “in order to prevent any further projects” and protect the cultural value of the area “in perpetuity.”

The only property specifically mentioned by the tribe for acquisition was the terminal site, and only after the coal terminal project was defeated. The documents say any acquisition of the terminal site would happen through negotiations with its owner, SSA Marine — not through a forceful snatching of the land, as the Alliance stated.

Ballew, who was not chairman when the 2012 ordinance was approved but sat on the council, acknowledged that acquiring a portion of Cherry Point was “a part of the operative part of the resolution.”

“But the more significant policy statement in that resolution is to protect the site,” Ballew said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that the tribe acquires the land.”

“As far as I know the property isn’t for sale, and we haven’t taken that into consideration,” he said.

Ballew emphasized the importance of protecting the tribe’s cultural heritage at the coal terminal location, which he said was the site of an ancestral village. For now, he said, the tribe is focused on protecting its fishing rights through its request to the Corps to stop Gateway Pacific Terminal.

“They’re fabricating a false conspiracy,” Ballew said. “This is a distraction to our request to the Corps to protect our treaty rights.”

The tribe says the terminal pier and up to 487 ships per year traveling to and from the port would do irreparable harm to tribal fishing. At full capacity, Gateway Pacific Terminal would export 48 million metric tons of coal a year to overseas markets.

In its letter, the Alliance asked the Corps to “publicly disassociate” itself from the tribe’s takeover plans and reject its request to halt the terminal project.

Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said the agency continues to consider the tribe’s request.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is focused on evaluating the actual proposal we have in hand for the Gateway Pacific Terminal and not on speculation regarding what may or may not happen with regard to future property ownership at Cherry Point,” she said.

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Lummi Nation rejects coal terminal applicant’s invitation to negotiate

Members of the Lummi Nation protested the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point on Sept. 21, 2012, by burning a large check stamped "Non-Negotiable." On Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew reiterated that stance, saying the tribe’s treaty rights were “not for sale” and the tribe would not negotiate with the company proposing the terminal.PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Members of the Lummi Nation protested the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point on Sept. 21, 2012, by burning a large check stamped “Non-Negotiable.” On Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew reiterated that stance, saying the tribe’s treaty rights were “not for sale” and the tribe would not negotiate with the company proposing the terminal.


By Ralph Schwartz, Bellingham Herald


Lummi Nation sent another clear message about a proposed coal terminal on Tuesday, Feb. 3: Under no terms will it accept Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, an area near the Lummi Reservation with cultural and economic value to the tribe.

Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew  responded Tuesday to a Friday, Jan. 30,  request from terminal proponent SSA Marine to meet face to face and discuss how to “harmonize the facility with the environment.”

“I can assure you that we have carefully considered the impacts associated with this project and have concluded that these impacts simply cannot be avoided, minimized, or mitigated,” Ballew wrote in his response to Skip Sahlin, vice president of project development for Pacific International Terminals, an SSA Marine subsidiary created to develop Gateway Pacific Terminal.

“While we appreciate your desire to engage on these issues, we remain steadfastly opposed to this project and do not see the utility in pursuing any further discussion,” Ballew added.

Officials at SSA Marine had no comment.

Ballew sent  a letter Jan. 5 on behalf of the Lummi Indian Business Council to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the agency to immediately reject a permit for the coal terminal because it would interfere with the tribe’s fishing grounds. The tribe has a right granted by an 1855 treaty to fish in its customary areas, which include Cherry Point and the shipping lanes that would see more traffic with the opening of Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Plans indicate the terminal could open as early as 2019 and would export up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year overseas.

Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said the agency would give an initial response to the Lummis’ request on Wednesday, Feb. 4, but it wouldn’t be a decision on whether to reject the permit.

As determined in past court cases about disruptions to tribal fishing areas, the Corps needs to decide whether Gateway Pacific Terminal would have impacts that were more than negligible. Lummi Nation in its request to the Corps cites a vessel traffic study, which concluded that the traffic added by the terminal’s operation would increase by 73 percent the disruption of Lummi fishing by vessels.

In reaching out to the Lummis on Friday, Jan. 30, Sahlin mentioned the politics around the coal terminal decision, “and the pressure from many divergent interests to sway decision making.”

SSA Marine officials have accused terminal opponents of  getting the facts wrong. Sahlin said in his letter that more productive discussions would result if SSA Marine and Lummi Nation met face to face, as they have previously.

“We would welcome the opportunity to a return to such a fact-based interaction,” Sahlin wrote.

“Negotiation between Lummi and Pacific International Terminals is not an option,” Ballew said in a prepared statement. “Our treaty rights are non-negotiable and not for sale.”

In an interview, Ballew said the Corps in consultations with the tribe could reach a decision on the Lummi request in months rather than years. Graesser said in an email to The Bellingham Herald the Corps’ decision does not have a deadline.

The Corps will continue to draft an environmental impact statement for the terminal, a step that comes before permit approvals.

“I’m of the opinion that this government-to-government consultation (between the Corps and the tribe) puts the EIS process on the back burner,” Ballew said, “and their attention now should be on … making a decision based on the information that we’ve given them.”

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Lummi Nation asks Army Corps to reject Cherry Point coal terminal

Then-Lummi Nation Chairman Clifford Cultee, left, and Hereditary Chief Bill James speak at a 2012 protest against a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point. The tribe sent a letter on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the agency to reject a permit application for the coal terminal because it would interfere with tribal fishing grounds. PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Then-Lummi Nation Chairman Clifford Cultee, left, and Hereditary Chief Bill James speak at a 2012 protest against a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point. The tribe sent a letter on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the agency to reject a permit application for the coal terminal because it would interfere with tribal fishing grounds. PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD


BY RALPH SCHWARTZ, The Bellingham Herald


Lummi Nation sent  a letter on Monday, Jan. 5, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the agency to immediately reject a permit application for a coal terminal at Cherry Point because it would interfere with tribal fishing grounds.

An environmental group in Bellingham called the action “historic.”

Lummi Nation cited its rights under a treaty with the United States to fish in its “usual and accustomed” areas, which include the waters around Cherry Point. A court decision in 2000 clarified the Lummi fishing territory, first established in 1855, to include northern Puget Sound from the Fraser River to Seattle, with the exception of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.

“The Lummi have harvested at this location since time immemorial and plan to continue into the future,” said the Lummi letter, signed by Chairman Tim Ballew. “The proposed project will impact this significant treaty harvesting location and will significantly limit the ability of tribal members to exercise their treaty rights.”

The letter was authorized by the Lummi Indian Business Council on Wednesday, Dec. 31.

A manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham said in a message to members that the Lummis had made “an historic announcement.”

“This is a critical development in the fight to block the Cherry Point coal terminal,” wrote Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager at RE Sources.

Past case law suggests Gateway Pacific Terminal could be in trouble. The corps rejected a permit in 1992 for a salmon farm in Rosario Strait on the grounds that the farm, though no larger on the surface than 1.41 acres, would interfere with Lummi fishing. The decision withstood a challenge in U.S. District Court.

“There’s a precedent for a threshold of impact on treaty rights,” Ballew said. “I trust that the Corps will uphold its constitutional responsibility.”

Officials for Gateway Pacific Terminal said they could not comment before the deadline for this story.

The coal terminal, if approved by federal and state agencies, and Whatcom County, would ship up to 48 million metric tons of coal annually to Asian ports, starting as early as 2019.

While environmentalists who have actively opposed the coal terminal for years celebrated, they didn’t declare victory.

“One of the things I’m sure of is that the Corps will respond to the gravity of this statement,” said Crina Hoyer, RE Sources’ executive director. “What the ultimate end result will be, it may be decided in the court.”

Corps officials said they will review the 97-page document submitted to them on Monday by the tribe. If the Corps finds that treaty-protected fishing would be disrupted to any significant degree, it will pass the information along to project applicant SSA Marine of Seattle for review.

“We generally ask the applicant to coordinate with the relevant tribes and to resolve the issue,” the Corps said in a statement on Monday.

Lummi Nation consistently has opposed the coal terminal publicly. Tribal members in 2012  burned a symbolic check representing a presumed buy-out from the coal industry. Last year, the tribe toured the western U.S. and Canada with a  totem pole to raise awareness of their opposition to fossil-fuel transport. The tribe also has criticized Gateway Pacific Terminal in written comments to permitting agencies.

“This is the strongest statement that we’ve seen from the Lummi Nation,” Hoyer said.

A  report released last month provided preliminary evidence that the terminal would impede tribal fishing. The vessel traffic study, developed by SSA Marine and Lummi Nation with oversight by the state Department of Ecology, indicated that cargo ships and other traffic for Gateway Pacific Terminal would increase the number of vessels in north Puget Sound by 15 percent. Vessel traffic in the vicinity of Cherry Point would increase 33 percent. The risk of oil spills also would increase.

Those results,  released on Dec. 18, were not taken to be final. Ecology officials emphasized that further study of vessel traffic would be included in a draft of the environmental impact statement on the coal terminal, expected in early 2016.

Even so, the Lummis mentioned the vessel traffic study in their letter to the Corps.

“Review of the impacts associated with this project, including … (the vessel traffic study) lead to the inescapable conclusion that the proposed project will directly result in the substantial impairment of the treaty rights of the Lummi Nation,” the letter said.

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Tribes: Fishing Rights Not For Sale

About 70 people gathered in May, 2014 to protest the proposed coal export facility in Boardman, Oregon. Yakama Nation and Lummi Nation tribal members spoke at a ceremony before people fished at treaty-protected fishing sites. | credit: Courtney Flatt
About 70 people gathered in May, 2014 to protest the proposed coal export facility in Boardman, Oregon. Yakama Nation and Lummi Nation tribal members spoke at a ceremony before people fished at treaty-protected fishing sites. | credit: Courtney Flatt

July 10, 2014 | Northwest Public Radio


The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have a message for coal shippers: their fishing rights are not for sale.

This blunt response comes after two years of talks between the tribes and Ambre Energy – the company that wants to build a coal export terminal on a part of the river that the tribes consider historic fishing grounds protected by their treaty with the federal government.

For Ambre’s export terminal, 8.8 million tons of coal per year would be transported by rail from Montana and Wyoming to Boardman, in Eastern Oregon. From there, it would be barged down the Columbia River and transferred to ocean-going vessels to be shipped to Asia.

Ambre Energy has offered to pay the tribe up to $800,000 per year (the same amount it’s offered the Morrow and Columbia County school districts). The company is also offering $500, 000 toward salmon and stream enhancements and $100,000 toward culture and history celebrations during the Morrow Pacific Project’s construction.

A tribal spokesman said the tribes have been in discussions with Ambre Energy for two years. Chuck Sams said that’s when the tribe began raising concerns about treaty fishing sites near the company’s proposed dock.

“We will not abdicate, nor will we trade, any of our treaty rights,” Sams said. “We’ve already proven to them time and time again that the place where they wish to site their facility is a usual and accustomed fishing station.”


Yakama Nation fishers protest Ambre
Energy’s coal export terminal.


Sams said there is no way Ambre could make up for damage that could be done to the fishing site because people fish there now.

Members from the Yakama Nation and the Lummi Nation recently held fishing demonstrations at the site where the coal terminal construction is proposed.

An Ambre Energy spokeswoman says the company chose this site specifically because it did not impact fishing sites.

“It’s important to remember that the proposed dock is on private Port of Morrow property in between two existing docks. And even with that, from the beginning we have sought a partnership with the tribes based on mutual respect, shared benefits, collaboration, and cooperation,” said spokeswoman Liz Fuller.

Sams said no formal reply to the company is in the works because the Umatilla tribes have already expressed concerns to Ambre Energy in face-to-face meetings.

Sams went on, however, to say the Umatillas are open to further discussions.

Referring to offers from Ambre Energy, Sams said, “I think that they read the public wrong – our public, our tribal citizens – and where we stand. The tribal members themselves are pretty strong on environmental issues, especially in protection of their treaty rights. … Putting out a letter that dangled out financial gain for the tribe really does not resonate well within the tribal membership.”

The Australia-based Ambre Energy is still waiting on a permit from the Oregon Department of State Lands to build the dock at its Boardman site. The permit decision has been delayed multiple times. Right now a permitting decision is scheduled for Aug. 18.

According to DSL rules, the permit can be issued if the dock doesn’t “unreasonably interfere” with preservation of water for navigation, fishing and public recreation.

More oil spills ahead for Puget Sound?

Ingrid TaylarThe Puget Sound — prettier without an oily sheen.
Ingrid TaylarThe Puget Sound — prettier without an oily sheen.
By John Upton, Grist
The Puget Sound — prettier without an oily sheen.

It looks like Puget Sound – which isn’t actually a noise but a sprawling and ecologically rich estuary in Washington state – is about to get a whole lot oilier.

An ugly trifecta of fossil fuel export projects proposed around the sound would substantially boost shipping traffic, and a new report funded by the EPA and produced by academic scientists for a state agency warns that can be expected to bring oil spills with it.

If the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal is built at Cherry Point, Wash., and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline into Vancouver is expanded, and Vancouver’s Deltaport is expanded, the report warns that the frequency of ship groundings and collisions could rise by 18 percent. Regionally, the risks of a large oil spill could rise by about two-thirds, the researchers found. Here’s more from the AP:

“The problem area is the Haro Strait area and the approach to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where spill volumes could more than triple due to the potential new mix and volume of traffic,” said Todd Hass with the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency is charged with protecting the waterway.

Under a proposal by Kinder Morgan Canada, up to 34 tankers a month would be loaded with oil at a Vancouver-area terminal, up from about five tankers a month now. Those tankers would generally travel through the Haro Strait west of San Juan Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The report concludes that the risks could be reduced through improved vessel traffic management, more vessel inspections, reduced speed limits for ships, and more tug escorts. And the report points out that those measures could help reduce oil spill dangers regardless of whether the dangerous fossil fuel projects move forward.

Tribal groups: Oregon coal terminal will hurt fish

Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Tribal groups say a coal terminal in the Columbia River Basin would interfere with treaty rights, harm fish and put the health of tribal members at risk.

About 50 Yakama Nation members protested Tuesday at site of the project at the Port of Morrow in Boardman. They say the terminal proposed by Ambre Energy would destroy tribal fishing areas.

The Oregon land board is to decide by May 31 whether to approve the project. In a letter to the board, the company says tribes are currently not fishing at its dock. But treaty rights guarantee a site for tribal use whether it is in use or not.

The company also says its dock would not “unreasonably interfere” with fishing.

Environmental groups and business leaders have also rallied against the project.

Read more here:

Coal-Hungry World Brings Tough Choices For Native Americans

Jewell Praying Wolf James addresses a crowd gathered in September in Olympia, Wash., to protest coal exports. (Lynne Peeples)
Jewell Praying Wolf James addresses a crowd gathered in September in Olympia, Wash., to protest coal exports. (Lynne Peeples)

By Lynne Peeples, Huffington Post, Updated Feb 7, 2014

Inside a ceremonial longhouse in northern Oregon last September, the sun’s rays spilling between the high-peaked beams, Davis Yellowash Washines was seated in full ceremonial dress — yellow headband, red sash, beaded shoes. A rawhide drum rested in his hand, and to his left sat four teenage boys, each with his own drum and mallet. One wore a black Chevrolet T-shirt. They thumped their instruments and called out native songs as an organized smattering of young children bounced rhythmically counter-clockwise around the dirt floor. Two dozen fellow members of the tribal community, seated in folded metal chairs, looked on.

“This longhouse is used for lots of occasions,” Washines said between songs. “But this one is significant.”

This ceremony aimed to ward off coal.

Celilo Indian Village, Ore., separated from the Columbia River by only a highway and some railroad tracks, is one of many tribal communities that sit in the path of what could soon become America’s coal-export superhighway. If government agencies grant approval to three export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington, up to 100 million metric tons of coal per year could soon be shuttled in open rail cars from mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, along the shores of the Columbia River and the Puget Sound, and through ranches and reservations like this one. The coal would then be loaded onto ships destined for Asia’s proliferating fleet of coal-fired power plants.

Many activists currently fighting the plan see the impacts of burning coal on the global climate as their primary motivation. But for the Yakama, Lummi and other tribes, as well as communities in the path of these shipments, it’s the local effects that worry them most. There are the potential traffic delays and disturbances to cultural sites. Then there’s the very real prospect of toxic coal dust wafting off the passing trains, fouling the air, poisoning local waterways and even contaminating key food resources — such as the salmon on which many local tribes, including those living in the tiny Celilo Indian Village, depend.

While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in coal use in recent years thanks to tighter federal regulations and the expanded viability of natural gas and renewable energy, the rise of burgeoning, coal-hungry economies in China, India and other fast-developing nations means the Celilo tribes — like many communities across the Pacific Northwest — now find themselves wedged squarely between a domestic abundance of the combustible rock and its most promising international market.

The potential expansion of coal exports elicits differing opinions among tribes and communities here. What may be an environmental or public health imposition for one is seen as a desperately needed opportunity for another. The coal industry, for example, argues that exports could inject welcome economic activity into struggling Northwest towns and reservations. By itself, the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed at Cherry Point on the Puget Sound would add approximately 1,250 permanent jobs, including induced jobs such as restaurant and healthcare workers, as well as 4,400 temporary construction jobs, according to an analysis by an industry consultant. Annual local and state tax revenues would amount to about $11 million.

The dispute over the coal trains is playing out in television advertisements, on the streets and inside boardrooms, town halls and courthouses from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. A series of hearings and protests over the last few months have attracted thousands of people — some donning makeshift respirators, others wearing “Beyond Coal” T-shirts, and some even rappelling from a bridge over the Columbia River as a symbolic blockade to the shipments. Still, nowhere are the tensions so acute as on the hardscrabble reservations that either sit atop valuable coal — an estimated 30 percent of U.S. coal reserves west of the Mississippi are located on native lands — or lie in the path of the trains that would haul it to port.

Just outside the walls of the longhouse where Washines and his fellow drummers were singing out in opposition to the coal shipments, a 22-foot totem pole lay on the bed of a white truck. The carving, which depicted five salmon, two kneeling men and a hungry child, was touring towns, churches and reservations across the Pacific Northwest as part of an effort to consolidate tribal opposition to the proposed coal shipments. (The totem’s last stop, in late September, would be across the border in the Tsleil-Waututh Nation of British Columbia, where it now stands erected as a display of solidarity with that tribe’s parallel struggle over a tar sands oil pipeline.)

“Mother Earth doesn’t have a voice,” said Karen Jim Whitford, a tribal elder, as she stepped shoeless into the center of the longhouse floor. A couple of her tears disappeared into the dirt. “So we must speak for her.”

“I vote we stand up,” exclaimed another elder, Lorintha Umtuch, referring to the totem’s symbolic call for Native Americans to get off their knees and “Warrior Up!” for future generations. “Indian people need to stop this, or else corporations will trample us.”

Not all tribes stand on the same side of the coal-export battle line. CJ Stewart, a senator of the Crow Nation, said in a phone interview in October that his tribe desperately needs to develop its coal reserves to improve its economic fortunes and lift its people out of poverty. In November, the Crow Nation signed a joint resolution with the Navajo Nation in support of each other’s coal development. “We rely on coal just as they rely on salmon,” Stewart said, referring to the Yakama and other tribes represented in Celilo. “All tribes share one common enemy, and that enemy is poverty.”

Many tribes along the rail corridor, however, feel it’s not just livelihoods at stake — it’s lives. Jewell Praying Wolf James, the carver of the well-traveled totem and member of the Lummi Nation, expressed sympathy with the coal-dependent tribes during a later stop on the totem’s journey in Olympia, Wash. “We feel bad for the Crow Nation, the Navajo, the Hopi. That’s all they got,” he said. “But we want clean air, clean water. We want salmon restored and our children healthy.”

Davis Yellowash Washines presses his hand against one of the brightly painted salmon encircling the bottom of the totem. “The salmon gave its life for you, just like the tree gave its life for this purpose,” he said. (Paul Anderson)

Dig into Native American history and you will strike coal. As far back as the 1300s, Hopi Indians in what is now the U.S. Southwest used the fossil fuel for cooking, heating and baking clay pottery. In the 1800s, Native Americans made up much of the early mining workforce that would help ignite coal’s long reign as the go-to fuel source for the country’s necessities and luxuries — from transporting goods and running factories to heating homes and powering Playstations.

But King Coal’s grip is slipping. The rise of hydro-fracturing technology in recent years has unleashed torrents of natural gas, a cheaper and cleaner alternative, and left coal-rich states and undiversified coal companies with a serious revenue problem. Many have responded by looking to Asia, where mining local coal, in addition to building wind farms and solar panels, has not created nearly enough energy for the rapidly growing economies there.

Asia’s ready market and America’s still plentiful coal could make a convenient marriage. Proving particularly attractive to Asian buyers is Powder River Basin coal, which is cheap to extract and relatively low in polluting sulfur. Yet plenty of obstacles remain in the U.S. and abroad before coal interests can successfully drive their product to northwestern ports for export. There are the vocal environmental advocates, the newly elected local leaders who’ve made clear their opposition to the plans, the big-money investors who’ve withdrawn support for port builders and, of course, the tribes.

In a July letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with evaluating the two Washington State coal port projects, the Lummi Nation wrote of its “unconditional and unequivocal opposition” to the terminal planned for Cherry Point, near its reservation. The tribe cited among other concerns “significant and unavoidable impacts and damage” to treaty rights reserved in the 19th century to fish at its “usual and accustomed” areas.

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman with the Corps, acknowledged the Lummi letter and said her agency was in government-to-government discussions with the tribe. “We have a responsibility to uphold the nation’s treaty with Native American tribes,” she said.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, is responding to a major air pollution crisis sparked largely by rapid development centered on coal-fired power. In December, Shanghai’s air quality fell to a record low and the country’s smog could be seen from space. But even with leaders in China vowing to slow down the growth of coal use, experts predict global coal consumption will jump up another 25 percent by the end of the decade.

Decisions on the Northwest export terminals could significantly influence the future of coal in Asia. “Opening up this main line of cheap American coal is a pretty important signal if you are a Chinese official thinking about how much to invest in what kind of energy infrastructure,” said KC Golden, senior policy adviser for the non-profit Climate Solutions, which has advocated against the proposed ports.

The effects would span the globe. According to estimates by the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Seattle, Pacific Northwest coal exports could create greater national and worldwide environmental impacts, including on climate change, than a Canadian company’s controversial proposal to ferry Albertan tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast via the Keystone XL pipeline.

As Jewell Praying Wolf James put it: “Once the coal gets to China, it’s pollution for all of us.”

For more than 11,000 years, Celilo Falls served as the center of trade and commerce for Native Americans of the West. The upwards of 15 million salmon that passed through the mile-long span of rocky chutes in the Columbia River every year functioned as a sort of currency. “Some tribal people call it pre-contact Wall Street,” said Charles Hudson, intergovernmental affairs director with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore.

Lewis and Clark called it “the great mart.”

But within a few short hours on March 10, 1957, Celilo’s era of plenty came to an abrupt end. Rising floodwaters from a newly completed hydroelectric dam engulfed the rapids. Salmon runs soon shrank to a small fraction of their former numbers.

Davis Yellowash Washines, chief of enforcement for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was only 5 years old when the Dalles Dam opened and drowned Celilo Falls. “I can still feel its mist. I can still hear its thunder,” he said over dinner the night before the September longhouse ceremony.

Warren Spencer, a Yakama elder, was serving in the military in Germany that year, but he recalled the time-lapse photos of the inundation he received by mail from his mother back home in Celilo Falls. “I sat there on my bunk and cried,” he said.

Now, Spencer is deeply concerned about how this new energy project might affect the futures of his four children, 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The coal push, he said, represents the continued encroachment of the federal government and “white man’s money” on Native American tribes. “It’s turning brother against brother,” he said.

Members of the Lummi Nation bask in the natural light of the Celilo longhouse before the totem pole ceremony in September. (Paul Anderson)

Many of the current and former residents of Celilo belong to the Yakama Nation. Like the Lummi, the tribe put its opposition to the exports on paper. In a November letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and a state official, Yakama chairman Harry Smiskin referenced a “long history of Treaty violations from energy development in the region that permanently and irreparably have harmed my People.” The new energy projects, he said, would add “direct adverse impacts” to the tribe’s treaty rights to fish, hunt and gather food, and do more damage to the already fragile environment, culture and health of his nation.

Dr. Frank James, of the University of Washington School of Public Health, underscored the “disproportionate impacts” of the coal projects facing native people of the Northwest. Much of this vulnerability results, he said, from their traditional dependence on the salmon of the region’s rivers and coastal waters — fish that are now widely listed as threatened or endangered under federal law and could be further spoiled by air and water pollution from mining and transporting the coal, and its burning overseas.

The tribes’ reliance on salmon goes beyond a staple food and a means to make a living. “It is their total way of life,” said James. “Salmon is part of their religion, their culture, their language. To further impact that is an assault on their very existence.”

In a back corner of the Celilo longhouse kitchen, Gloria Jim sat in a folding chair, on a brief break from cooking the ceremony’s Columbia River salmon lunch with other Celilo women. She lamented that they hadn’t had enough salmon to serve for breakfast, too.

“That’s how it used to be here,” said Jim, who wore a white shirt printed with a picture of her deceased son, pink stretch pants and running shoes. She recalled the Forest Gump-like menu of her childhood: Salmon, fried or dried, stuffed or baked, or simply salted.

“My mom didn’t believe in food stamps. We lived on what we caught,” she said. “Now we have no choice. We have to go to the grocery store.”

Her people have been warned, she added, that the salmon they do catch and eat may be dangerously polluted. An estimated 17 percent of pregnant Native American women already have mercury levels high enough to disrupt the healthy development of their babies — much higher than other racial groups.

Deposits of the neurotoxic heavy metal, along with arsenic and other contaminants from coal-fired power plants, can accumulate up the food chain and into salmon. Research further suggests that around 25 percent of the mercury in Northwest American waterways and up to 10 percent of the ozone in the region’s skies is carried by wind currents across the Pacific — from power plants in Asia.

Coal exports could pollute the region in other ways. Perhaps most talked about are the risks of heavy metal-laden coal dust and diesel exhaust blown and belched from trains, terminals and ocean-going tankers. Derailments, such as the one that sent seven cars spilling coal into a British Columbia creek last week, raise further fears, as does the possibility of bunker fuel spills once tankers set out to sea through narrow, rough passages.

In November, Dan Jaffe, an environmental scientist at the University of Washington-Bothell, released preliminary results of a study on the environmental insults of existing coal train traffic. His team monitored 450 passing trains — some carrying coal, some not — from two representative sites. They sampled for about 10 days at a spot on the Columbia River Gorge and for about a month near a Seattle home that butts up against railroad tracks currently used by trains en route to Canadian coal ports. Jaffe said he confirmed elevated levels of diesel exhaust there “on par with the dirtiest air in the Seattle area,” as well as a slight increase in large airborne particles — likely coal dust, he said — when coal trains passed by.

The three proposed terminals would dramatically increase rail traffic, bringing some 35 additional mile-plus-long trains in and out of the region every day. Currently, fewer than 10 coal trains come and go.

Jaffe’s crowdfunded research has yet to be peer-reviewed, a point emphasized by Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, whose lines would host much of the westbound coal. Wallace added that BNSF has spent more than $1 billion on rail cars and locomotives that “achieve the highest EPA standards available,” and result in 69 percent fewer diesel emissions compared to older locomotives.

BNSF has testified that up to 645 pounds of coal dust can escape from each rail car during a 400-mile journey, but Wallace also pointed to findings by the railway that this fugitive dust diminishes as railcars travel farther from the Powder River Basin and toward export terminals.

Several environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit in July against BNSF over coal contamination of U.S. waterways. Wallace called the action a “publicity stunt,” but a U.S. District judge denied a motion to dismiss the case this month.

Blown coal dust and other hazards could be particularly dire around Celilo and the rest of the Columbia River Gorge, where train tracks are sometimes just feet from tribal residences, said Hudson, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “The winds are reliable and strong — 40, 50, 70 miles per hour,” he said. “There’s a reason it’s the wind-surfing capital of the world.”

Located in rural Montana, the Crow Nation can’t boast a lucrative seafood or wind-surfing tourism market. What they do have is a whole lot of coal. Approximately 9 billion tons of the fossil fuel lie beneath their land, comprising one of the largest coal reserves in the United States.

“Coal is the way we’ve been taking care of our people,” said CJ Stewart, the Crow senator. Yet his people continue to struggle with poverty and an unemployment rate he suggested is upwards of 50 percent. “And the U.S. cries over its 8 percent,” he said.

In June, the U.S. government approved a deal between the Crow and Cloud Peak Energy, a Wyoming company that’s moving to increase its coal exports to Asian markets. The tribe now has the green light to lease its rights to an estimated 1.4 billion tons of coal, more than the U.S. consumes annually. The deal could be worth at least $10 million for the Crow over the first five years. Cloud Peak has also pledged to give preference in hiring, training and promotion to qualified Native Americans, as well as annual scholarships to local native students. A spokesman for Cloud Peak, Rick Curtsinger, said the company is continuing to work through an agreement with the tribe.

Crow Nation chairman Darrin Old Coyote testified in July before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources that the deal is largely dependent on the fate of coal exports through the Northwest. Such significant coal development, he said, has “unlimited potential to improve the ongoing substandard socioeconomic conditions of the Crow people and the surrounding communities in southeastern Montana.”

“Given our vast mineral resources, the Crow Nation can, and should, be self-sufficient,” he said.

Also in the heart of the Powder River Basin, and also saddled with high unemployment, are the Northern Cheyenne. The tribe has a long history of resisting coal development due to perceived environmental health risks. But like the Crow, the Northern Cheyenne are also recognizing an increasingly tough economic reality.

“We’ve got a lot of coal underneath our land,” said Tom Mexican Cheyenne, director of the Northern Cheyenne’s community health department, who made clear that he did not speak for the tribe. “There’s a split — some on the tribal council are for coal mining and some are against it.”

The Northern Cheyenne’s decision on whether or not to harvest their coal may, too, come down to pending verdicts on the Pacific Northwest ports. No train tracks currently run to their reservation’s coal reserves, though rail lines could be expanded with enough demand.

Mexican Cheyenne believes the council is leaning towards development of the coal. “I see a real desperation to help the economy any way they can,” he said.

Wind energy has also been on the table here for years. But impoverished tribes such as the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow often lack the funds necessary for capital investments and opportunities for outside help, such as tax credits.

Debra Lekanoff, a leader with the Swinomish Tribe of Washington, said the tribes need federal support to find alternative ways to benefit from their resources. “We urge the federal government to help our brothers and sisters with funding, capacity-building and sound science to open up the doors to new opportunities,” she said.

She suggested that the “elephant in the room” in the coal development debate is the challenge of “walking in two worlds” and soundly balancing “economic sustainability and environmental protection.”

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, which includes the Yakama and Lummi, adopted a resolution in September supporting a pilot project proposed by the Crow Nation to convert some of its coal to liquid fuels such as diesel and gasoline for domestic use. The tribe’s plan, which Stewart said illustrates that the Crow are not entirely reliant on coal exports, also gained support from the National Congress of American Indians this fall. It still awaits federal approval.

The official document from the Northwest Indians, however, notes that their blessing does not “supersede, replace, or rescind” a resolution made by the group in May that opposed all proposals to increase transportation through the region of “fossil energy,” including both coal and unrefined crude oil.

About a week after the resolution’s adoption, Jewell Praying Wolf James’s totem pole pulled up in front of the Washington state capitol building in Olympia for another event opposing coal exports. Much like the other stops on the totem’s journey, this ceremony’s songs and speeches pointed to both the despair and hopes of Native Americans and the deeply complex tensions at hand.

A crowd of some 50 people, many representatives of local tribes, stood in the alternating rain and sun in front of the flatbed truck. Flanking the truck was a yard sign that read, “No coal exports. We can do better.”

Creating alternatives, experts agree, is prerequisite to combating climate change and sustaining resources for future generations — and even to passing judgment on any group that chooses to develop its coal, or buy and burn it.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to stop fossil-fuel dependency if we don’t have an answer for how to create energy and create better lives,” said KC Golden, the Climate Solutions policy adviser. “The Crow and other folks across the world want a fair shot at the relative prosperity we enjoy. We have to have a better answer than digging up half of Montana and burning it in Asia.”

Senate Panel Questions Ecology On Review Of Coal Terminal

Ashley Ahearn, OPB

Washington’s top environmental regulator found herself in the hot seat Thursday during a state Senate hearing called by Republican lawmakers who disapprove her agency’s scrutiny of a coal export terminal proposed for the northern shore of Puget Sound.

At issue: greenhouse gas emissions.

The Department of Ecology caused a stir last year when it announced that it would consider the greenhouse gas emissions produced when 48 million tons of exported coal is burned in Asia – that’s how much coal would move through the Gateway Pacific Terminal every year.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, convened a work session to question Ecology officials, including director Maia Bellon, about its move.

Ericksen emphasized fears among business and trade leaders that Ecology’s move sets a precedent.

Some worry that in the future the state could consider the greenhouse gas emissions of say, exporting Boeing airplanes or apples, and that could prevent projects from going forward.

Here’s an exchange between Bellon and Ericksen:

Maia Bellon

Bellon: Because there is no question about the end use of the commodity for the coal transportation projects, it makes that different in terms of the pollution that’s created.

Ericksen: I know we’re over time but I essentially heard you say that the Department of Ecology can pick and choose and no business can have a guarantee of what will be studied and what will not be studied.

Bellon said that greenhouse gases are a pollutant and therefore should be considered in the environmental review of projects.

But she stressed that her agency considers projects on a case-by-case basis and the environmental review is meant to present information. It’s not a final decision on whether a project is built or not.

The committee did not take any action during Thursday’s hearing.

Northwest Tribe Opposes Coal Terminal, But How Hard Will They Fight It?

 Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley AhearnTribal treaty fishing rights give Washington tribes the opportunity to weigh in on, and even block, projects that could impact their fishing grounds.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn
Tribal treaty fishing rights give Washington tribes the opportunity to weigh in on, and even block, projects that could impact their fishing grounds.

Dozens of crab pot buoys dot the waters around Lummi tribal member Jay Julius’ fishing boat as he points the bow towards Cherry Point – a spit of land that juts into northern Puget Sound near Bellingham, Wash.

It’s a spot that would be an ideal location to build a coal terminal, according to SSA Marine, one of two companies that hopes to build a terminal here. If the company has its way, up to 48 million tons of coal could move through these waters each year aboard more than 450 large ships bound for the Asian market.

SSA Marine has its eye on Cherry Point because it’s surrounded by deep water with quick access to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean.

But if the Lummi and other tribes exercise their fishing rights, there may not be any coal ships servicing American terminals in these frigid Northwest waters.

“I think they’re quite disgusting,” Julius said when asked how he feels about the terminal backers’ efforts to make inroads with the Lummi. “It’s nothing new, the way they’re trying to infiltrate our nation, contaminate it, use people.”


Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn
Aboard a Lummi fishing boat just south of the Canadian border near Cherry Point.

‘People Of The Sea’

One out of every ten members of the Lummi Nation has a fishing license. Ancestors of the Lummi, or “People of the Sea” as they are known, and other Salish Sea peoples have fished the waters surrounding Cherry Point for more than 3,000 years. Today Lummi tribal officials are sounding the alarm about the impacts the Gateway Pacific Terminal could have on the tribe’s halibut, shrimp, shellfish and salmon fishery, which is worth a combined $15 million annually.

Tribal treaty fishing rights could play a major role in the review process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. According to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, nine tribes’ treaty fishing grounds would be impacted by the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the vessel traffic it would draw.

In the mid-1800s, tribes in this region signed treaties with the federal government, ceding millions of acres of their land. Native American populations plummeted and the survivors were relegated to reservations.


They insisted on reserving the right to continue to fish in their usual and accustomed fishing areas. It is an extremely important part of the treaty.

The tribal leaders of the time did a smart thing, said Tim Brewer, a lawyer with the Tulalip tribe in northwestern Washington: “They insisted on reserving the right to continue to fish in their usual and accustomed fishing areas. It is an extremely important part of the treaty.”

But those fishing rights weren’t enforced in Washington until the Boldt Decision, a landmark court decision in 1974 that reaffirmed  tribal fishing rights established more than a century before.

“If a project is going to impair access to a fishing ground and that impairment is significant that project cannot move forward without violating the treaty right,” Brewer said.

Since the Boldt Decision, tribes have been fighting for their treaty rights.

In 1992, the Lummi stopped a net pen fish farm that was proposed for the waters off of Lummi Island by a company called Northwest Sea Farms.

Learn more: Attend a Dec. 6 Town Hall Seattle discussion with KUOW/EarthFix reporter Ashley Ahearn.

But agreements have been made in other situations. The Elliott Bay Marina, the largest, privately-owned marina on the West Coast, was built in 1991 within the fishing area of the Muckleshoot tribe. It took 10 years of environmental review. The Muckleshoot fought the project but ultimately came to an agreement with marina supporters.

When Dwight Jones, general manager of the Elliott Bay Marina, was asked if he had any advice for companies that want to build coal terminals in the Northwest, he laughed.

“I’d say good luck,” Jones said. “There will be a lot of costs and chances are the tribes will probably negotiate a settlement that works well for them and it will not be cheap.”

Jones said the owners of Elliott Bay Marina paid the Muckleshoot more than $1 million up front and for the next 100 years will give the tribe 8 percent of their gross annual revenue.

“Anyone who’s in business can tell you that 8 percent of your gross revenues is a huge number,” he said. “It really affects your viability as a business.”


Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn
A gathering of coal export opponents last summer at Cherry Point. The event was part of an anti-coal totem pole journey led by the Lummi Nation. Its tribal members fish at Cherry Point.

Starting Negotiations

SSA Marine and Pacific International Terminals – the companies that want to build the terminal at Cherry Point – have lawyers and staff members working to negotiate with the Lummi to build the terminal. The companies declined repeated requests for interviews.

Last summer, Julius and the rest of the Lummi tribal council sent a letter opposing the coal terminal to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The federal agency will have final say over the key permits for the coal terminal.

In the letter the Lummi lay out their argument, which centers around threats to treaty fishing rights and the tribe’s cultural and spiritual heritage at Cherry Point.

But there’s a line at the end of the letter, which legal experts and the Army Corps of Engineers say leaves the door open for continuing negotiation on the Gateway Pacific Terminal: “These comments in no way waive any future opportunity to participate in government-to-government consultation regarding the proposed projects.”

This is the second installment of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Read more environmental coverage at EarthFix.