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Washington Tribe Wants Feds To Halt Coal Project

File photo of two members of the Lummi Nation harvesting crab from Puget Sound. The tribe is calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to  halt the review of a coal terminal.
Katie Campbell/KCTS9
File photo of two members of the Lummi Nation harvesting crab from Puget Sound. The tribe is calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt the review of a coal terminal.

LUMMI RESERVATION, Wash. -- The Lummi Nation issued a letter Monday to the U.S. government seeking to end the project's permitting process for a coal-shipping project encircled by their Puget Sound fishing grounds.

In the letter, the Lummi tribal council calls on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt the review of a permit for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, Washington. At full capacity, it could one day be the largest coal export terminal in North America.

The letter states that the terminal will undermine the tribe’s right to harvest fish from the area, a right that was ensured them in their 1855 treaty with the U.S. government.

“The impacts on the Nation’s treaty rights associated with this project cannot be mitigated,” the letter states, and the Lummi Nation intends to use “all means necessary” to protect the cultural and spiritual significance of the area.

Tribal Chairman Timothy Ballew II declined to comment on whether the tribe will take legal action against the Corps, saying, “I have faith that [the Corps] will do the right thing and uphold the trust responsibility and their constitutional responsibility to protect our treaty fishing rights.”

In the letter to the Corps, the Lummi point to a precedent-setting court decision from 1996 in which a District Court judge ruled that a proposed salmon farming operation would harm the tribe’s access to treaty fishing areas surrounding Lummi Island. The project was not allowed to proceed.

Last year, Oregon officials denied permits for a coal dock on the Columbia River over concerns about impacts to tribal treaty fishing rights.

Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser responded to a request for comment by saying her agency is still reviewing the letter and was not ready to make a decision regarding the Lummi's request to halt the permitting process. She said the Corps will provide SSA Marine and Pacific International Terminals, the applicants, with a chance to review and respond. "We’d be looking for additional data from them, information that perhaps we didn’t have to this point," Graesser said.

This latest letter is the strongest statement from the Lummi regarding the Gateway project to date, and carries more weight than previous statements of opposition from the Lummi and other tribes because it calls on the federal government, directly, to uphold its treaty obligations and deny permits for the Gateway Pacfic Terminal, independent of the environmental study of the project, which could take at least another year.

“There is history of the Army Corps of Engineers denying a permit application based on impacts to usual and accustomed fishing areas,” Graesser added. "It is possible that we would halt that process."

At maximum capacity, the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be serviced by more than 450 large ships each year, receiving coal from trains arriving from Wyoming and Montana. The coal will then be shipped across the Pacific and sold on the Asian market.

Opponents of the coal terminal say the vessel traffic and potential coal escapement would harm important fisheries. Other communities throughout the state have raised concerns about the local impacts of the uptick in coal train traffic. Up to 18 loaded and unloaded coal trains could travel through Seattle each day, depending on how BNSF Railway routes the train traffic. SSA Marine, the company behind the Gateway Pacific Terminal, has previously said that the company is committed to working with Lummi Nation to "remedy their concerns."

A poll commissioned by EarthFix in 2014 surveyed 1,200 residents in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and found 47 percent of Northwest residents say they support coal exports. That’s up a little bit from last year’s survey, which showed 41 percent of respondents supporting coal exports. 34 percent opposed Northwest coal exports, and 19 percent didn’t know.

The Cherry Point terminal is one of three projects in the Northwest that are being pursued by the coal industry to transport the fossil fuel from Wyoming and Montana to customers in Asia.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

Ashley Ahearn