A big win for Indian treaty rights
Lummi tribe stops North America’s largest proposed coal port
Lois Danks
volume 37
issue 4
August 2016

May 9, 2016. Lummi students play traditional drums to celebrate halting Cherry Point coal terminal. Photo: Ralph Schwartz

In May, the Lummi nation won their 5-year battle to stop a massive Gateway Pacific coal export facility proposed for Cherry Point near Anacortes, Wash. The tribe’s environmental leadership and defense of their treaty rights to fish in the area was backed by 50 other tribes and massive public support. The port would have been the largest in North America.

In response to the Lummi’s effective organizing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to issue a permit for the coal port on the grounds of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot, which established the Suquamish (Port Madison), Tulalip, Swinomish, and Lummi reservations and guaranteed their fishing rights in perpetuity.

The huge coal storage and shipping facility would have devastated air, land, sea, human health and native culture. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad’s own impact statement said that 3 percent of the coal would be lost as dust on the journey from mines in Montana and Wyoming to Cherry Point. That is 1.9 million tons annually!

Two large oil refineries and an aluminum smelter are already operating adjacent to tribal fishing grounds. A xylene plant (a highly flammable solvent) is proposed nearby. The coal port was to receive 59.5 million tons of coal per year, destined for Asia on nine times a day, mile-and-a-half long trains. Ships too big to pass through the Panama Canal would have made almost 500 trips a year to China and other Asian countries.

Defending environmental and treaty rights. The tribe stood firm against heated opposition from corporate-backed groups like the NJA (Northwest Jobs Alliance), which claimed that tribal leaders planned to snatch non-tribal land, annex it to their reservation, and “de-industrialize Cherry Point” destroying thousands of jobs. The Director of the NJA, Craig Cole, is also paid by SSA Marine, which was to build the terminal, to do public relations for the firm.

The Lummi nation gained support from tribes that share the fishing grounds and from environmental and religious groups in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, Canada. A special totem pole was carved and taken on a journey to communities that would be affected by coal trains. After this outreach gained more supporters, the pole was erected on tribal land at Xwe’chi’eXen (Cherry Point).

Over 200 doctors in Whatcom County signed a letter supporting the tribe’s efforts, citing the harmful health impacts of coal dust and noise from coal trains and ships.

Ongoing battle. The Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 and other treaties have been under attack in the U.S. for decades by land-grabbing capitalists who want access to shorelines, ports, timber, rivers, and minerals.

In 2015 Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), along with 31 colleagues, sent a letter urging the Army Corps of Engineers to ignore treaty protections in the Gateway Pacific port project.

Daines is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, yet he opposes tribal sovereignty. Other legislators are trying to sneak riders into unrelated bills to give industry the freedom to ignore treaties.

The Lummi started a national campaign in 2015 to defend treaty rights, sending a call to tribes across the U.S. to band together and let Congress and national Indian leaders know that treaty rights must be protected. Tribal Business Council Chair Tim Ballew II said, “The rights of all tribes are under fire from some members of Congress who are putting the interests of a corporation … before their duty to honor our treaties.”

More struggles ahead. The neighboring Swinomish have sued BNSF in federal court to block a four-fold increase in trains carrying extremely flammable Bakken crude oil through their lands in violation of a 1991 easement. The Quinault nation is fighting construction of oil train terminals in southwest Washington, including Tesoro’s Vancouver, Wash. project, which would be the largest oil-by-rail unloading facility in North America.

The Swinomish, Tulalip, Lummi and Suquamish tribes have also joined three British Columbia first nations to oppose Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of its TransMountain oil pipeline before Canada’s National Energy Board.

Many indigenous groups across North America and worldwide are leading the charge to save the natural world from destructive energy corporations. Labor, leftists and environmentalists need to follow their lead and push back against the oil, gas and coal moguls by calling for nationalizing the industry under the control of workers and consumers.

All must join to fight for alternative, safe, clean jobs for workers and communities. No more pollution, leaks, fires, or explosions! Defend tribal sovereignty! Defend the treaties! Defend the natural world!

Send feedback to the author at lfdanks@yahoo.com.

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