Northwest Tribe Says Proposed Coal Terminal Would Be ‘Like Putting A Freeway Inside The Reservation’


A Pacific Northwest tribe with fishing rights dating to the mid-19th century has sharply escalated a battle over a proposed coal export terminal near its northwest Washington reservation, urging the federal Army Corps of Engineers to reject the facility as a threat to their longstanding treaty rights.

In a letter to the Corps, Lummi Nation Chairman Tim Ballew II said the proposed Gateway Pacific terminal planned for construction at Cherry Point, WA would harm fishing grounds that are a vital economic and cultural resource for the nearly 5,000 members of his tribe.

“The Lummi people have harvested fish at this location for thousands of years,” Ballew said. “We have a sacred obligation to protect this location for its cultural and spiritual significance.”

The terminal, which would be constructed north of Bellingham, Washington, would have the capacity to ship up to 48 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to Asia. It is one of two coal export terminals proposed for Washington state that are currently undergoing environmental reviews.


Opposition to the terminal in Cherry Point is nothing new for the Lummi Nation, which has previously staged high-profile protests against the planned facility, including a tour of western states with a 19-foot totem pole to rally opposition. But in formally asking the Corps of Engineers to deny a permit for the terminal based on anticipated damage to its fishing grounds, the Lummi have injected a powerful legal argument into their fight.

In a sweeping ruling in 1979 known as the Boldt decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the treaty-guaranteed fishing rights of the Lummi and many other northwest tribes. And two decades ago, a federal district court upheld a Corps of Engineers decision to block a salmon farm based on its potential impacts to Lummi fishing rights.

In an interview with ThinkProgress in 2013, Ballew said the proposed coal export terminal is a direct threat to both the cultural heritage and the economic foundation of the Lummi Nation, which is heavily dependent on salmon and crab harvested from waters near the terminal site.

“Our family system, our value system and our culture revolve heavily around fishing and gathering,” Ballew said.

In his appeal to the Army Corps, Ballew said the coal terminal would bring traffic that would pollute the tribe’s fishing grounds. Quoting a Lummi tribal fisherman, Ballew said approving the coal terminal would be “like putting a freeway inside the reservation.” Ballew also said the Army Corps “has an obligation to uphold our treaty rights and comply with the federal laws regarding Luumi rights to fish at Cherry Point. Our waters are a way of life and survival for our people. The bottom line is, you can’t mitigate or buy your way out of the damage that this proposed shipping facility would cause.”

Bellingham-area environmental activists immediately joined in support of the Lummi Nation’s protest to the Corps.

“A coal terminal at Cherry Point would be devastating to Lummi fishing as well as countless other values,” Crina Hoyer, executive director of the Bellingham group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said in a statement. “We support the Lummi’s efforts to protect Washington’s natural resources and way of life by keeping dirty, dangerous coal exports out of our communities.”