Tribe plays trump card that could kill coal terminal

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by ERIC WILKINSON / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on August 1, 2013 at 5:46 PM

Updated Thursday, Aug 1 at 6:33 PM

The Lummi Indian Tribe is officially opposing the plan to build a massive coal export terminal near Bellingham. It’s a move that could ultimately terminate the terminal and stop controversial coal trains in their tracks.

The Lummi say the terminal would destroy their ability to fish native waters as they've done for thousands of years. Merle Jefferson comes from a long line of Lummi fishermen. His father and grandfather worked the waters around the Strait of Georgia for salmon and crab, as do 60 other families today.

“This is our backyard,” he said, standing on the beach at Cherry Point Thursday. “This is our home.”

People have been protesting the plan for months, saying coal trains rumbling through Western Washington would be unhealthy and dangerous.

Now, the tribe is playing a trump card. They're invoking treaty rights, sending a formal letter to the Army Corps of Engineers that declares they see no workable way to share the waters with coal exporters. In response, the Corps could deny critical permits for the project, essentially killing it.

“400 or 500 vessels a year is gonna have a drastic impact to out treaty fishing rights,” said Jefferson, who is the tribe’s director of natural resources. “It's forever.”

While it is not common for the Army Corps of Engineers to deny permits they do take native treaties very seriously. The agency has denied at least three major projects in Washington over the past 25 years because of tribal concerns.

Lummi leaders tell KING 5 discussions with developer SSA Marine broke off last June. They won't say why they're only now making their official declaration to the Corps.

Adding to the Lummi case are ancient tribal villages and cemeteries on the land around the proposed site. Federal officials say the tribe's strong stance will now force them to reassess the project.

“This here is our homeland,” said Jefferson. “We have to protect our homeland.”

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