Tribal concerns over coal

Tug on anything and you’ll find it connected to everything else. Coal-export facilities give political expression to John Muir’s wisdom. Environmental impacts radiate through other nations or, more properly, nations within a nation. With the focus on an arcane, bureaucratic process, observers often forget that the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview are inextricably bound to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.

Washington’s post-European history was predicated on a covenant picked apart and violated for decades. The Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 uprooted families and devastated multiple cultures. The treaty was signed by then-territorial governor Isaac Stevens, with X marks by native leaders such as Lummi Chief Chow-its-hoot and Goliah, Chief of the Skagits. (Some unpleasant treaty details were lost in translation.) American settlers entered into a legal and social contract, that in exchange for ceding massive swaths of land, Indians would maintain access to natural resources and a traditional way of life. Anything that has a negative material effect on those resources is a concern of tribes — a concern with political and legal resonance.

After years of adjudication, the Tulalip Tribes have an established usual and accustomed fishing area that reaches from Vashon Island to the Canadian border. By extension, harm to the marine ecosystem, native fisheries or the habitat of endangered species harms tribes. The effort to build a coal export facility at Cherry Point is then reduced to its core: Can impacts and risks be properly documented?

The Lummi Nation is skeptical, opposing Cherry Point because of its potential harm to sacred and religious sites, as well as its impact on fishing. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a regional multistate congress, passed a resolution that insists on a collective environmental impact statement for all the proposed projects.

One major player is weighing how to respond. As The Herald’s Gale Fiege reported in December, Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon testified at the Seattle scoping hearing.

“The Tulalip Tribes support job creation. We are one of the largest employers in our area. But we will not tolerate anything that poses threats to our cultural resources, our health and our treaty rights to fish, hunt and gather,” Sheldon said. “The tribes and local, state and federal governments have worked hard to improve the environment, but it won’t mean much if we find coal dust in fragile waters of the Salish Sea.”

The tribes fear spills and derailments, mercury pollution and the fallout of coal dust. Identifying risks — and whether coal terminals foreshadow added benefits or costs — is critical, with everyone connected to everything else.

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