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Lummi tribe objects to coal terminal in Washington

Members of the Lummi tribe in Washington fear that a large coal export terminal planned for the coast will interfere with their fishing, a mainstay of the tribe. Lummi fishermen at work.

Jay Julius pulls up his hoodie and guns the engine of his fishing boat as we leave the Lummi reservation, just south of the Canadian border. Julius is a councilmember of the Lummi Tribe. And Cherry Point -- just ahead of us -- used to be a home base for his people, before they signed the land over to the federal government in the 1850s. Human remains dating back more than 3,000 years have been found there.

"So that's Cherry point, and then the cliffs start right there, and that's where there's signs of an ancient village, monstrous village," he says.

If coal companies have their way, there could be an export terminal there. At maximum capacity, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would draw more than 450 ships per year to pick up Wyoming coal and deliver it to Asia. Those ships would travel through the Lummi tribal fishing area.

For a tribe whose membership hovers around 4,500 people, the $15 million fishing industry is an economic driver for the Lummi.

Brightly colored crab pots dot the water around us. "So you have numerous fishermen up here right now, fishing," Julius says. "What does that mean to our treaty right to fish? This will be no more."

Tribal treaty fishing rights are powerful in this region. Tribes have stopped other projects -- like fish farms or waterfront developments -- when they demonstrated that the project would affect their fishing areas.

Tribes and other communities in the region are worried the increase in coal trains will cause traffic congestion and pollution along the way. And they're worried about the effects of climate change once the coal's burned. More than 50 tribes have signed a letter opposing the coal export proposals in the region.

One Lummi tribal member took things a step further.

Jewell James carved a 22-foot long totem pole and drove it on the back of a truck from the coalfields of Wyoming all the way to British Columbia, along the proposed route of the coal trains. He stopped in Seattle.

"We're hoping that this route that we're taking will help unify people all along the train route," James says.

James says he feels for the families in the coal industry who have suffered as domestic coal use has gone down in recent years. "We know what it's like as Indian country to wake up one morning and don't have a job, because we have the highest unemployment, under employment, worst poverty in the country."

Coal use in the U.S. has dropped as more coal-fired power plants close or shift to natural gas. That has coal companies trying to find routes to sell their product overseas.

But the route to the Asian market through the Northwest won't be an easy one if the people who were here first have anything to say about it.

 

About the author

Ashley Ahearn is a multimedia journalist based in Seattle at KUOW Public Radio.

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