Native American Tribes Split Over Denial of new Pacific Coal Terminal

Young drummers of the Lummi tribe wait for their elders to start celebrating the announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied permits for what could have been the largest coal export terminal in the US, in Northwestern Washington state.

Ashley Ahearn/EarthFix

Young drummers of the Lummi tribe wait for their elders to start celebrating the announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied permits for what could have been the largest coal export terminal in the US, in Northwestern Washington state.

In another blow to the U.S. coal industry, the Army Corps of Engineers on May 9 denied approval for a new coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest. The Gateway Pacific Terminal would have doubled total U.S. coal export capacity and would have been the largest export terminal in the country.

Pacific Gateway has been the focus of widespread opposition from environmental groups and from the Lummi Indian tribe, who said it would harm traditional fishing grounds. But coal companies in the Powder River Basin and the Crow tribe in eastern Montana were counting on the terminal to export their coal to Asia.

To announce the decision, the tribal council called a meeting and invited elders and young people from the community. The room was packed but it fell silent when Lummi chairman Timothy Ballew played a recording of the phone call he had with the Corps just about an hour earlier.

The phone call relayed the news that the Corps had issued a decision on the permit which was a denial without prejudice.”

When the new was heard, the room erupted in cheers and applause.

The Lummi tribe has been waiting for this news for more than four years, but the story goes back more than a century. The tribe signed a treaty with the federal government 150 years ago that guaranteed the Lummi access to fish coastal waters. The coal terminal would have interfered with that treaty right. So the tribe has been pushing the feds to remember their side of the bargain and deny the permits.

The Crow flag flies at tribal headquarters.

The Crow flag flies at tribal headquarters.

Chairman Timothy Ballew says those efforts have finally paid off.

“I feel that this is a win for the constitution, a win for the treaty and I feel that the ancient ones up at Cherry Point will rest protected,” he said.“It’s a good day.”

But on the Crow Reservation  the news has not been well received.

The reservation is in the heart of the Powder River Basin, the nation’s most productive coal region. The tribe was going to own five percent of the new terminal, and reap tens of millions of dollars in coal sales.

Crow tribal member and educator Jason Cummins

Eric Whitney / Montana Public Radio

Crow tribal member and educator Jason Cummins

Tribal member and educator Jason Cummins said Crow people care about environmental impacts from exporting coal, but, “If a family has an empty fridge and an empty cupboard, maybe sometimes their concerns are a little more immediate and down to earth.”

Unemployment here runs 50 percent or more. For decades, local coal mines have provided some of the few good, steady jobs on and around the reservation. The tribe also distributes revenue from coal sales to tribal members several times a year.

Roberta Other Medicine works at the local hospital. She said she’s concerned about climate change, and that there will be short and long-term consequences if the Crow don’t export their coal.

“(Not mining and exporting coal) would be a good thing for my great grandchildren. It wouldn’t be a good thing for me and my children,” she said.

A statement from Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said he’s “deeply disappointed” in the Army Corps of Engineers. He said they disregarded Crow treaty rights, failed to meaningfully consult with the tribe, and should have prepared a full environmental impact statement before deciding against Gateway Pacific.

Housing on the Crow reservation where unemployment is more than 50 percent

Eric Whitney / Montana Public Radio

Housing on the Crow reservation where unemployment is more than 50 percent

In Washington state, the backers of the terminal released a statement saying the Corps’ denial of the permit “sends a dangerous signal” to people who were eager for jobs.

But on the Lummi reservation, the announcement was cause for celebration and a blessing from a tribal elder. At the end of the meeting, a group of young Lummi tribal members picked up their drums and led the crowd out into the great hall.

The coal terminal backers may sue the Army Corps for denying the permit and the battle could continue, but for now, the Lummi are celebrating.

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