A typical coal train.

Lummi Nation Asks Army Corps to Deny Permit for Coal Export Terminal

Richard Walker

The Lummi Nation has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit to build a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point, citing significant impacts to treaty rights and irreparable damage to important crab and salmon fisheries as well as an ancestral village site.

“We have a sacred obligation to protect this location for its cultural and spiritual significance,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II said.

In a letter sent on January 5 to Colonel John Buck of the Seattle district of the Corps, Ballew said the impact of the proposed bulk coal terminal at Cherry Point, known by Lummi as Xwe’chi’eXen, cannot be mitigated. Several court decisions and laws—among them United States v. Washington and the National Historic Preservation Act—require the Corps to ensure that the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights are not abrogated or impinged upon, he said.

If built, Gateway Pacific Terminal, the deep-water facility at Cherry Point proposed by the SSA Marine subsidiary Pacific International Terminals would handle the export of up to 54 million dry metric tons per year of bulk commodities, mostly coal. In a related project, BNSF Railway Inc. has proposed adding rail facilities adjacent to the terminal site. Pacific International Terminals’ development applications are undergoing environmental impact review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the State Environmental Policy Act.

In 1997, Whatcom County issued a shoreline substantial development permit and a major development permit for construction and operation of the terminal. Because of changes to the size and scope of the proposal, the county determined that a new shoreline permit is required. The project must undergo a full environmental review before the company can obtain required permits. Ballew has written to the Army Corps about this project before.

RELATED: Lummi Nation Officially Opposes Coal Export Terminal in Letter to Army Corps of Engineers

The project is opposed by First Nations in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, particularly those who share the Salish Sea. They say coal exports will result in substantially increased ballast water discharges, which will introduce invasive species to the local marine environment; noise and vessel traffic; and a risk of coal and oil spills. They also contend that coal dust from the railway and terminal will affect the health of marine waters and nearby communities.

Concerns about coal dust are shared by residents of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, where proponents of a coal terminal on the Mississippi River forecast an increase in Gulf Coast coal exports from seven million tons in 2011 to 96 million by 2030.

Coal dust contains heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium and mercury, and can cause cancer, neurological, renal and brain-development problems, according to Dr. Marianne Maumus of Ochsner Health Systems in New Orleans.

"I think the risk is real. I think there is a lot of potential harm from multiple sources,'' Maumus told the Times-Picayune last August.

Moreover, there are alternatives to coal and oil, among them energy generated by wind, sun and tides, said Jewell James, director of the Lummi Nation’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, in a previous interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.

“But we’re not going to move toward those until we move away from fossil fuels,” he said.

‘A sacred obligation’

The Lummi people have harvested fish at Xwe’chi’eXen for thousands of years, Ballew noted. Xwe’chi’eXen is a spawning ground for herring, on which salmon feed, as well as habitat for other marine species. Salmon are important culturally and spiritually to Lummi and other Coast Salish nations. Lummi and other Coast Salish nations have treaty-reserved rights to fish in their usual and accustomed areas; federal court decisions uphold those rights and drive several salmon-protection and habitat-restoration efforts in the region.

Fishing is also important economically. According to the Lummi, fishing in the area supports hundreds of businesses and provides more than a thousand jobs.

“As one of our tribal fishermen said, ‘It’s like putting a freeway inside the reservation,’ " Ballew said of the coal export terminal. “The vessel traffic would contaminate our fish and shellfish and severely limit the ability of our tribal members to exercise their treaty rights.”

Moreover, he said, “Our waters are a way of life and survival for our people. The bottom line is, you can’t mitigate or buy your way out of the damage that this proposed shipping facility would cause.”

In his letter to the Corps, Ballew wrote:

“The waters and tidelands impacted by this project are an integral part of the usual and accustomed fishing places of the Lummi Nation … As part of the permitting process for this project, the Corps is required to ensure that the Nation’s treaty rights are not abrogated or impinged upon.

“Review of the impacts associated with this project, including, but not limited to, those analyzed in the Gateway Pacific Terminal Vessel Traffic and Risk Assessment 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 throughout the Nation’s ‘usual and accustomed’ fishing areas.

“The Lummi have harvested at this location since time immemorial and plan to continue into the future. The proposed project will impact this significant treaty harvesting location and will significantly limit the ability of tribal members to exercise their treaty rights.

“Additionally, the Lummi Nation has a sacred obligation to protect Xwe’chi’eXen based on the area’s cultural and spiritual significance. The Corps is obligated to comply with the mandates of the National Historic Preservation Act, specifically section 106, in evaluating the project’s potential impacts. This obligation is in addition to the Corps’ obligations that spring from our treaty rights.

“The Lummi Nation is opposed to this project due to the cultural and spiritual significance of Xwe’chi’eXen and intends to use all means necessary to protect it.”

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