The Congressional Threat to Treaty Rights
The Lummi Nation has faced an uphill battle in our efforts to protect our fishing area at Xwe'chi'cXen, Cherry Point, from a coal terminal. We’ve faced many obstacles and opponents in an ongoing fight to protect this sacred site from harmful development. Now, we’re working to stop Congress from taking actions that could have devastating impacts on not just Lummi, but tribes across the nation.
SSA Marine wants to build North America’s largest coal terminal within Lummi fishing waters. If the terminal is built, huge ships—vessels too large to pass through the Panama Canal—would cross the Salish Sea through the treaty-protected fishing grounds of Lummi and several other treaty fishing tribes.
In late August, the Lummi Nation submitted our final response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps). Years of extensive research have shown that there is no way to mitigate the impact of a coal terminal in Lummi fishing waters. SSA Marine’s own studies even admit that the terminal would result in 3.7 billion gallons of polluted water discharged from ships in the area. Pollution and a big increase in vessel traffic would be devastating to our ability to fish and would violate our treaty.
When the Corps evaluates permit requests for projects like the Gateway Pacific terminal, it has to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to ensure there’s no significant damage to the environment. They’re also required to conduct an independent analysis to protect tribal treaty rights. The Corps can then deny a permit based on whether a project violates treaty rights. Now some members of Congress want to change the game.
Under pressure from SSA Marine, Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana) and Representative Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) want to prohibit the Corps from making a determination about the permit for the Gateway Pacific Terminal based on a review of the project’s impact on Lummi’s treaty rights.
If the terminal is built, Montana coal can be shipped to China. So Senator Daines and Representative Zinke, along with 31 of their colleagues in the House and Senate, are urging the Corps to degrade treaty protections. In a letter sent to the head of the Corps, they complained about the treaty rights review of the Gateway Pacific project and suggested that treaty rights didn’t deserve review or respect from the agency.
Senator Daines is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, yet he has coordinated this effort to erode treaty rights to the benefit of a corporation that has shown it’s willing to ignore the rules. SSA Marine conducted invasive testing at Cherry Point and carried out the unauthorized excavation of burial sites in Lummi’s sacred area. The rights of all tribes are under fire from some members of Congress who are putting the interests of a corporation with questionable business practices before their duty to honor our treaties.
Tribes across the United States should be on high alert as Congress tries to chip away at our treaty protections. If Congress prevents the Corps from independently reviewing and honoring Lummi’s treaty rights, it could create a precedent that would force other tribes to go through an unnecessary environmental review process.
Certain members of Congress want to change federal law to undermine treaty rights. Lummi Nation will be reaching out to tribes across the nation for support. We must send legislators in our states, and the chairmen of the Indian Affairs Committees, a clear message that we’re watching and will defend the treaties our past leaders fought and died for.
Tim Ballew II is the chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council.
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