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Tribes Give New Hope To Fight Against Coal Ports

NW tribes flex their muscle over proposed coal terminal project

Common Dreams staff

Lummi tribal leaders burned a mock check from coal companies during a protest at Cherry Point, Wa. (Photo by: Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

In a protest this week, fishermen from the local Lummi tribe lined up their boats in unified opposition of a plan to build six coal export terminals along the Pacific Northwest coast, opening up inland coal to Asian markets.

Environmental groups and "green-minded politicians" have already come out against the project. This spring, hundreds of anti-coal activists were joined by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and energy experts at a rally in Portland, Oregon rally protesting the 'invasion' of the Pacific Northwest.

In the past few weeks, local tribes have been joining this movement and bringing historic clout and legislative power with them. Citing injury to fishing rights and religious and sacred sites, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission released a statement saying, "tribal communities are expressing grave concern about the health and safety impacts from environmental dangers of coal dust".

The New York Times reported on this growing concern among the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, quoting Billy Frank Jr., Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission.

The idea of a half-dozen new coal export terminals in western Washington and Oregon—and the hundreds of trains and barges running from Montana and Wyoming every day to deliver that coal—would threaten our environment and quality of life like nothing we have seen before. Coal may be a cheap source of energy for other countries, but these export facilities and increased train traffic would come at a great cost to our health, natural resources and communities.

The Times goes on to explain that, at least in this part of the nation, history has shown that "a tribal-environmental alliance," such as been demonstrated in recent events, "goes far beyond good public relations."

The cultural claims and treaty rights that tribes can wield — older and materially different, Indian law experts say, than any argument that the Sierra Club or its allies might muster about federal air quality rules or environmental review — add a complicated plank of discussion that courts and regulators have found hard to ignore.

Although many tribes around the nation received rights to hunt and fish in the treaty language of the 1800s…few places had a focus on a single resource — fish, especially from the Columbia River and its tributaries — that tribes here did. They also, crucially, persisted in using the resources that the treaties had granted them.

In the 1970s—when both the environmental and indian rights movement were gaining momentum—tribes in this area were successful in pushing court cases that reinforced their claims. Instances where local tribes have been able to flex their might include salmon stock restoration in the Columbia River and, just this year, restoring wild flow to a section of the Elwha River in "one of the biggest dam removal projects in the nation's history."

Further, an executive order from the Clinton era directs federal agencies to allow tribal access to sacred sites and requires that they take into account religious practices in federal decision making. Lummi leaders, in their protest this week, said the proposed Cherry Point site is full of sacred sites and burial grounds.

“It brings another set of issues to the table,” Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber told the New York Times, crediting the tribes with having a voice that 'even a governor cannot match.' “It definitely increases the pressure."

Last month, a regional congress of more than 50 tribes from seven states passed a resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers "to conduct a full environmental analysis for all six proposals to transport and export coal through their shared lands and waters." The ACE had previously announced that they would conduct an Environmental Assessment rather than a more rigorous Environmental Impact statement. The resolution went on to demand "full transparency and government to government consultation throughout the entire decision making process the local, state, and federal levels."

The first public hearings for the terminal projects are set to begin this month in Bellingham, near the Lummi reservation.

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