Washington State Tribes Block Coal Terminal

An application to build the largest coal port ever proposed in North America was yet again blocked earlier this month due to concerns that the terminal would have infringed on treaty-reserved fishing rights of local tribal communities in the northern Puget Sound.

Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources June 6 blockage of the coal port was the second of two rejected applications to build a coal export terminal on the Lummi Nation’s aquatic territory. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the first permit last May.

Chairman Clifford Cultee and Hereditary Chief Bill James at a protest
Then-Lummi Nation Chairman Clifford Cultee, left, and Hereditary Chief Bill James, right, speak at a 2012 protest against the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. (Photo:Philip A. Dwyer, the Bellingham Herald)

The two permit rejections end a multi-year long struggle dating back to 2012 for several tribes’ environmental groups, the city of Seattle, and several smaller cities, in their fight to stop the coal port.

Both agencies denied SSA Marine’s permit application for Cherry Point due to compelling evidence from Washington State’s Department of Ecology that the terminal’s effect on tribal fishing rights would exceed the low threshold of acceptable damage allowed under treaty-reserved fishing areas of five Washington tribes.

The port would have brought what Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes, described as the largest cargo ships coming into the Puget Sound.

“With that much momentum, it takes them six miles to stop from when they start to slow down,” he said in a phone interview with GlacierHub.

The State’s Department of Ecology indicated that increased large ship traffic would likely interfere with the activities of tribal fishermen in the area.

Tulalip canoes
One of the three Tulalip canoes, which are used for the annual Salmon Ceremony and Canoe Journey, on the Tulalip Bay. (Photo:Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News)

“[Tulalip] fishermen are primarily drift gillnet fishers, so they set out their net and drift with the currents. Any obstacle in the way limits the amount of area they can fish in,” he explained.

When the Department of Ecology released a vessel traffic study that showed full operation of the proposed terminal would cause 76 percent more disruption to fishing, Daryl Williams knew that Cherry Point’s chances of survival were slim.

Regarding the final decision, he said he is “happy to see a federal agency actually upholding treaty rights for a change.” But, he added, “I don’t think they really had a choice.”

The decision elicited a sigh of relief from many tribal communities along the Puget Sound when they learned that their fishing rights would remain intact. Resistance against the port elicited teamwork between neighboring Tribes in their shared quest to stop the port.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, told the Seattle Times, “We have the same amount of commitment to treaty rights protection. We are a team and we are working with [other tribes]”

However, climate change still threatens the existence and health of these treasured water and fishing sources. Scientists have estimated that the Puget Sound will experience sea level rise ranging from 8 to 55 centimeters by 2050. Sea level rise, as well as increased temperatures, hold the potential to irrevocably damage local water sources and coastlines, and therefore the fishing populations that Northwestern tribes rely on.

Glacier Peak
Glacier Peak contains more than a dozen glaciers whose melt water feed into the Skagit and Snohomish watersheds. (Photo:Snohomish County Government)

Some of the Tulalip’s more local water sources in the Skykomish and Stillaguamish watersheds are fed by smaller glaciers in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Park. Daryl’s brother, Terry Williams, commissioner of the Treaty Rights Office for the Tulalip Tribes, estimates that the smaller glaciers feeding the Skyhomish, Stillaguamish and Snoqualmie watersheds have mostly disappeared, and that the larger glaciers in these areas are likely more than 50 percent gone.

Rapid glacial melt not only increases river flow, but also affects the time at which flows peak. Terry estimated that in recent years, local spring flows have arrived two to three months earlier. With increased flows, the area is experiencing increased sedimentation, which leads to landslides and impacts the fish population by either burying the fish or washing them out in heavy rains.

These local ecosystem changes worsen the stability of water sources that the Tulalip Tribe depends on for fish, especially the salmon population.

Fishing on the Quileute Indian Reservation
Native American fishers hauling a net onto a beach in Washington State
(Photo: IMLS Digital Collections and Content)

“Survival rates [of our salmon population] have been dropping off dramatically,” Terry Williams said. In an interview for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals Newsletter, he estimated that the Tribes have lost 90% of their salmon population in recent years.

He told GlacierHub that the tribe has also seen an increase of intense floods both from glacial lakes and increased precipitation, as well as changes in storm seasons.

“We know that as climate change and sea level continues to rise, that sea level rise is going to have an impact on our shoreline and create more intense rain events in the fall and spring,” he said.

Terry Williams notes that waste and water pollution has also harmed their local water sources and the fish populations.

He explained: “The water in the Puget sound isn’t the healthiest — it’s shaped like a bathtub, so the water tends to circulate rather than flush. So over the years, all the pollutants that have entered the Puget Sound have stayed at the bottom, or in the water column.”

While the proposed coal port at Cherry Point has been thwarted, it appears that fossil fuel sources will continue to affect the natural resources of the region. The Tulalip Tribe, however, has been proactive in its adaptation plans.

As Environmental Liaison for the Tulalip Tribes, Daryl Williams dedicates time to a variety of environmental issues. However, he says that he’s been spending more and more time in recent years on climate change and the tribe’s adaptation plan.

For one, he says that the tribe is in the “early stages” of developing Climate Impacts Assessments for both its reservation and whole fishing area. Already, he’s concerned about sea level rise, saltwater intrusion into coastal well systems, and erosion along the Sound that may harm the Tribe’s coasts and coastline property.

In determining the impacts the tribe may face in the not-so-distant future, the urgency to mitigate and adapt to climate change is clear. The tribe has taken on a number of projects to increase its energy efficiency and decrease its energy consumption, particularly because of the local utility’s large reliance on hydropower, which, yes, affects the tribe’s fish population.

“The tribe’s been trying to cut down on demand for hydropower in the Columbia river system because those dams have a major impact on salmon in that river,” he said.

New Tulalip Administration Building
The newly constructed Tulalip Administration Building. (Photo: D8 Aluminum)

The tribe has also pursued other efficiency and clean energy projects: its new Tulalip Administration Building, containing a ground-coupled heat pump and built-in raingardens, was designed in 2009 to be energy efficient and ecologically sustainable. The tribe has also partnered with a nearby dairy farmer to capture and burn manure to create electricity. In addition to the tribe’s local adaptation planning, Williams added that the Tulalip Tribes have also been involved at the national level with the President’s Climate Action Plan.  

Although Cherry Point appears to no longer be on the table, the Tulalip Tribes are keenly aware that climate change simultaneously poses an existential threat to their lands and natural resources. As such, in order to best preserve their land, the Tribes are demonstrating a long-term commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation.