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Lummi Nation raises its profile on coal port plan

The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham could brings jobs, but it could also endanger livelihoods and natural resources.

Pacific herring

Pacific herring OpenCage

A new set of applications to develop the West Coast's largest coal-shipping port north of Bellingham at Cherry Point is expected to be filed early in 2012, with parties gearing up for political as well as environmental struggles over the proposal.

This week the Lummi Nation, the largest Native-American tribe in Whatcom County, served notice that it intends to be a major player in studies dealing with the port. Merle Jefferson Sr., a Lummi elder statesman and director of the Lummi Natural Resources Department for 20 years, addressed Lummi concerns in an opinion piece in the Bellingham Herald.

Although a study group had been created earlier this year, Jefferson's article was a first notice to the larger community that the Lummi Nation has major concerns that it wants addressed as SSA Marine goes forward with plans for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Fully operational, the export terminal would ship about 48 million tons of coal annually from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to Asian markets. The terminal would have another 6 million tons of capacity, for commodities that have not been specified. Grain has been mentioned by terminal proponents.

Jefferson acknowledged the terminal's promise of both construction and operational jobs; Lummi land is near the terminal site and the Lummi casino is on the road to Cherry Point. Earlier this year the casino announced expansion plans.

Recognizing the economic benefits, Jefferson noted, "the Lummi Team is also charged with evaluating whether the impacts and risks to treaty rights, natural resources, cultural resources, traditional cultural properties and the environment outweigh the potential economic gain." The tribe has already been consulting with SSA Marine and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on artifact sites in the Cherry Point reserve, which is now the home to two refineries and an aluminum plant.

Fishing is a major part of the Lummi economy, and the tribe has long been concerned about the demise of herring in Cherry Point waters. The history of the herring stock, once abundant and now depleted, shows decline since industrialization at Cherry Point, although biologists are cautious about blaming the industries. Herring are a critical link the food chain for Chinook Salmon.

An element that has had little attention to this point, the introduction of giant Cape-size ships to carry coal to Asia, is of particular concern to Lummi fishers who would share the waters off Cherry Point with the world's largest freighters.

"The Gateway Pacific pier, planned to be 3,000 feet long and 100 feet wide, would dwarf the existing piers currently operated by BP Cherry Point, Alcoa Intalco Works and ConocoPhillips," Jefferson wrote. "The pier would be large enough to accept massive Cape-size ships — which are too big to even travel through the Panama Canal, can carry 250,000 dead weight tons, and may require as many as four tugboats to guide them into port. This increased vessel traffic will present a particular hazard to tribal fishers in their comparatively small fishing boats and will interfere with fishing."

Once applications are filed early in 2012 for shoreland and upland development, an exhaustive process of environmental review will begin; it's expected to take at least two years. Concerns highlighted by Jefferson will be among those studied, but the Lummi have proclaimed that they also intend to conduct their own review of topics vital to the nation's culture and livelihood.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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