The Lummi Nation Is Lawyering Up For a Big Fight Over Coal Exports

The bitter battle between the Lummi Nation and the proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Bellingham’s Cherry Point came to a head Thursday when the Lummi issued their final letter to the Seattle District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requesting that the Corps deny the project’s permit, full stop.

Their reasoning? The proposed coal terminal—which, if constructed as planned, would be the largest coal export terminal in North America—violates an 1855 treaty that guaranteed the Lummi Nation and other tribes access to fishing waters off of Cherry Point (Seattle, of course, has a stake in the battle since much of the coal shipped through Cherry Point would run through downtown. Plus, climate change).

The Lummi sent the Corps the first letter on the topic in early January, referencing not only the treaty, but the past precedent for this kind of thing. The Army Corps of Engineers has denied permits to other projects on similar basis, such as a proposed salmon farm in Rosario Strait.

Eight months later, no decision has been made—in part because project developer Pacific International Terminal sent several rebuttals to the January request, suggesting that the Lummi were getting in the way of the environmental review process, and that there was no way of determining the project’s impact on those fishing grounds until environmental review was finished. Republican congressmen in Montana made similar requests last month, urging the Corps to ignore the Lummi’s requests and simply move forward with the EIS.

The tribe has had it with the back and forth.

“We believe that [the Army Corps of Engineers] has everything they need to make a decision,” says Tim Ballew II, chairman of Lummi Indian Business Council. “We don’t think it should be drawn out any longer than it has to.” For the Lummi, the 1855 treaty and the EIS are not the same issue, he adds. “We want to reiterate the fact that this is a separate process. The Corps’ determination of [the project’s] impact on treaty rights would need to be done regardless.”

This is the latest iteration of a very long fight—decades long, in fact, as the Gateway Pacific Terminal is the latest in a slew of proposed facilities here. This time, Ballew says, “We fully expect that [the Corps] will do the right thing.”

And if they don’t, say the Lummi, so be it. The tribe just hired the largest law firm in the world to represent them in court, should it come to that. “We want to be ready for everything,” says Ballew. “The treaty rights are something that we can’t afford to lose.”

In the meantime, some Lummi Nation members are about to take the final step of another journey—that of an intricately carved, 22-foot totem pole that made its way from Vancouver to eastern Montana in protest of coal development in the Pacific Northwest. On August 30, the pole will be part of a ceremony at the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Lame Deer, Montana, not far from the site of a proposed coal mine that could feed coal to the Cherry Creek Terminal if built.

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