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Warrior Up!

To ship coal from the Powder River Basin to China, you have to go through the heart of the Lummi Nation

By Jeff Galbraith

The second phase of the Boldt decision upholds the tribe's contention that its treaty guarantees it the right to abundant salmon populations. That means that the state has an obligation to protect salmon habitat. In 2007, the federal district court in Seattle ruled that the majority of road culverts designed and maintained by the state are insufficient to allow returning salmon to spawn, in violation of the 1855 treaty. Since then, Washington has spent tens of millions of dollars upgrading antiquated culverts, while at the same time appealing the decision. In January 2013, Judge Ricardo Martinez issued a permanent injunction, directing the state to continue the mitigation work in a timely manner. The case is now headed to the Ninth Circuit, but if Washington has to replace hundreds of old storm culverts in deference to the Martinez decision, it's hard to see how SSA Marine's huge proposed shipping terminal could operate in a way that doesn't violate tribal treaty rights.

Between the shade the massive ships will throw upon the eelgrass beds (depriving them of chlorophyll), the shoreline erosion from increased traffic, and the known and predictable hazards of fuel spills and coal dust, the Lummi Nation considers a behemoth coal terminal in the middle of this fragile and recovering fishery both a madness and a sacrilege. Jeremiah "Jay" Julius is a commercial fisher whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was one of the signatories of the 1855 treaty. "The tankers are the trains that killed off the buffalo," he said at a tribal habitat forum. "These tankers are going to kill my way of life. So, to me it is a battle."

"When are you going to stand up for your children and their future? It's time to warrior up!"
—Tsleil-Waututh elder Amy George

The coal terminal would threaten the Lummi way of life in other respects as well. Cooling the coal awaiting shipment at Cherry Point would require vast amounts of freshwater: 5.3 million gallons per day on average but up to 55 million in the summer. That amounts to 140 percent of the Nooksack River flow. "How does that affect our ability to fish the Nooksack?" Julius bristled at the forum. "How does that affect the water level?"

The projected volumes of coal moving to port would be enormous—so great, in fact, that the dust alone blowing from open hopper cars would be a major environmental hazard. "If they operate at 99.9 percent perfect, with no mechanical or human error," Julius says, "[Powder River Basin coal producer Peabody Coal] estimates losing one teaspoon of coal dust per ton. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when you multiply it by 48 million, that's 500 tons of coal dust."

The coal ships themselves are the largest oceangoing vessels on the planet—three times the size of those currently operating at Cherry Point. They would have to navigate an archipelago that includes large reefs, major tides, resident orca whales, and an already high volume of ship traffic. An accident could be catastrophic.

In order to proceed, the Cherry Point coal terminal must be approved by Whatcom County, the state's Department of Natural Resources, and, de facto, the tribes. Each is a significant hurdle. In last November's election, candidates presumed to be skeptical of the coal terminal secured a majority on the Whatcom County Council. While they might still approve the project, Floyd McKay, a writer who has covered the issue extensively at Crosscut.com, says, "I wouldn't be surprised if they'll do so with enough restrictions that SSA won't bother." For Peter Goldmark, head of the state Department of Natural Resources, to sign off on the project, McKay continues, he'd have to buck the environmentalist Seattle-Tacoma electorate. Even if he did, the financing may not be there: In January, Goldman Sachs pulled its substantial investment out of the project.

For the tribe, the issue goes beyond coal trains, shipping terminals, and even the fish themselves. "It is not only going to impact our Native treaty rights and reef net sites but also sacred ground," Julius says, referring to Washington's designation of Xwe'chieXen as both an archaeological site and a state historic place.

Last fall, James and the native carvers from the House of Tears fashioned a 22-foot-tall totem pole for spiritual healing. He and a team of tribal diplomats and young carvers loaded the pole on a truck and drove it along the proposed coal route, from Wyoming's Powder River basin across traditional Northern Cheyenne lands, homestead ranches, rivers, and farms, arriving at last in Lummi country. A moon face atop the pole symbolizes both the harvest and its attendant ceremonies, designed to show respect for the fact, James explains, that "something is dying for you." Below the moon, a wolf holds a salmon, symbolizing salmon returning to the Fraser River. Near the bottom of the pole, human figures crouch on bended knee. James got the idea from Amy George, a Tsleil-Waututh Nation elder and daughter of famed actor Chief Dan George, who implored her Canadian tribe to oppose a ramping up of tar sands oil exports from the Fraser Surrey Docks terminal.

"She asked the men to stand up, to quit sitting back. 'When are you going to stand up for your children and their future?' she asked. 'It's time to warrior up!' So that's what the kneeling men are about. They are still passive; they need to warrior up," James says.
If the warriors are successful, 500 years from now, ooligan and herring will still dodge stalking coho among the kelp beds at Xwe'chieXen. Mergansers and herons will patrol the tide lines. A Lummi fisherman, standing tall against blue-green waters, will throw a reef net anchor off his platform, raise the net to the surface, and welcome the first salmon.

Jeff Galbraith is the publisher of the Flyfish Journal, The Ski Journal, and frequency: The Snowboarder's Journal. He rides, skis, hunts, and fishes in Whatcom County, Washington.

This story was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.


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