Lummi Tribe joins the opposition to Whatcom coal port

Extensive environmental hearings are about to get underway, reviewing the proposed coal port and its impacts. The tribes further complicate the chances for the port facility.
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Extensive environmental hearings are about to get underway, reviewing the proposed coal port and its impacts. The tribes further complicate the chances for the port facility.

Elders of the Lummi Nation announced opposition Friday to a proposed export terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, an industrial port area that remains a point of contention for Native Americans and proponents of development on the site.

The port, proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle, would become the largest coal-export terminal on the West Coast, sending some 48 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually to Asia when fully developed. Cherry Point, site of two oil refineries and an aluminum plant, is also a historic Lummi gathering ground and a major factor in historic fisheries that are important to Native Americans in the region.

Lummi leaders announced their opposition at a "Xwe' chi' eXen Gathering" Friday, presided over by Hereditary Chief Bill James and Lummi Nation Chairman Cliff Cultee; about 250 Lummis and guests from the area.  Xwe' chi' eXen is the ancestral name for Cherry Point, a peninsula projecting into Puget Sound adjacent to the Lummi Reservation. "It is our promise and our duty to our ancestors, our elders and our future to protect and preserve Cherry Point," said Cultee.

Opposition to the export terminal was emotional and personal for several of the tribal leaders. "This is the home of the ancient ancestors and it's up to us today to protect mother earth," Chief James told the audience after introducing his topic in the Lummi language. "Their spirits are here . . . remember what we are doing to mother earth." Chairman Cultee urged members of the Lummi Nation to work together, but also to work with other tribes dealing with export of coal; "don't just send it someplace else." Tribes in Oregon and Eastern Washington have also been dealing with the coal-export issue.

Guests of the Lummis were greeted by a plethora of the familiar "No Coal" signs that have dotted Bellingham neighborhoods, and the ceremony added an exclamation point by burning a large facsimile of a million-dollar check, labeled "Non Negotiable."

Although the tenor of the speakers and the anti-coal signs made clear the depth of opposition, SSA Marine spokesman Jim Waldo said the company will continue to work with the tribe on issues involving archeology and preservation of sacred sites, which were referred to by speakers. Later Friday, SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters reiterated attention to cultural values, and also cited an SSA study on impact on the fishery from the terminal. "It is also important to keep in mind that the Gateway Pacific Terminal will meet all of Washington's stringent environmental standards and will be an excellent source of family-wage jobs for all of Whatcom County, including Lummi members," Watters added.

The Gateway Pacific project covers nearly 1,100 acres, and SSA Marine has options on an adjacent 300 acres. The Friday ceremony was on county land near the terminal site.

Lummi opposition will place the tribe's concerns in a major position among elements to be considered when Whatcom County, Washington Department of Ecology, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begin on Monday (Sept. 24) the environmental review process on Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed by SSA Marine.

The first element in that process, determining the scope of the environmental review, was announced Friday in the Federal Register. It allows 120 days for governments, tribes, and the public to present information to the three reviewing agencies, in writing or at seven public hearings throughout the region.

The unusual length of the process and the number and reach of the hearings are important to critics of the export terminal, for they will bring a broad collection of opposition, including the impact of coal trains that will transit the state from Spokane to Cherry Point. Accordingly, the hearings will range from Ferndale, closest to the terminal site; to Bellingham, most impacted by the trains; and on to Seattle, Vancouver, and Spokane, all of which will see railroad impacts. Additional hearings will be in Mt. Vernon and Friday Harbor; the latter will focus on maritime impacts from bringing nearly a thousand giant coal ships through the San Juan Islands.

The first hearing will be Oct. 27 in Bellingham, the last on Dec. 12 in Vancouver. Scoping is critical to the entire project because it will determine which areas will get the most intense review by experts working under a contract to CH2M Hill, the regional engineering firm. The consultants will report to the three lead agencies, which will jointly set the scope for the consultants to review.

In its Federal Register posting, the Corps of Engineers listed a broad array of issues that it expects to be covered in the environmental review process: "Potentially significant issues to be analyzed in the EIS include but are not limited to project-specific and cumulative effects on navigation (e.g., vessel traffic and navigational safety); marine aquatic habitats, including State-designated aquatic reserves; marine aquatic species, including Endangered Species Act listed species and Washington State species of concern; Tribal treaty rights; wetland and riparian habitat and wildlife; railroad and vehicle traffic; cultural, historic, and archeological resources; air and water quality; noise; recreation; land use; and aesthetics."

Target date for completion of a draft environmental review is January 2014 although the GPT process has already seen major delays since it was unveiled in 2011. The Cherry Point project is the first of two large coal-export terminals to enter the environmental review phase; the other is the Millennium Bulk terminals project at Longview; no dates have been set for scoping on that project.

At Cherry Point, issues of tribal sovereignty could play a large part in eventual determination of the environmental review, particularly in terms of federal law and regulations. Lummi tradition rejects the loss of critical lands, including Cherry Point, in executive orders dating to the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s. The Cherry Point industrial area was once a reef-net site for Lummi fishermen, and still figures heavily in salmon fishing.

The GPT terminal could also impact the already-depleted herring fishery, which is critical to salmon runs in the area. "These sites are a part of our usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations, and part of our cultural legacy to be passed on to future generations," said Jewell James, a Lummi elder, in describing the importance of the site to the tribe.

"This is our fish, our water — we want it all back," said Lummi vice-chairman Candice Wilson in an emotional appeal. "There are no boundaries for us; our heart says this is ours . . . our eyes are wide open, we are here, and we are not going anywhere," she added, addressing her comments to the non-Lummi guests in the audience.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.