Politics Blog

Bellingham, Northwest Jobs Alliance respond to Lummi’s coal terminal letter

This week, the City of Bellingham and the Northwest Jobs Alliance have both written letters following up on Lummi Nation’s letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.

For some quick background: On Jan. 5, Lummi Nation requested the Corps immediately reject a permit application for the Gateway Pacific Terminal because it would interfere with tribal fishing grounds.

Lummi cited a treaty that established its rights to fish in “usual and accustomed” areas.

At full capacity, GPT would export up to 48 million metric tons of coal and 6 million metric tons of other commodities to overseas markets. Barring delays in the permitting process, the terminal could be fully operational by 2019.

Fellow Politics Blog reporter Ralph Schwartz has been diligently covering this topic, so I’m going to refer you to his excellent coverage, including this story from when the tribe’s letter was first sent , and this follow-up from Jan. 17, which talks about the tribe rejecting a “standing offer” to negotiate approval of the terminal with SSA Marine, the company behind the terminal.

During the regular Bellingham City Council meeting Monday, Jan. 26, the council unanimously approved asking Mayor Kelli Linville and Council President Gene Knutson to send a letter to U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell about the tribe’s request.

Bellingham’s letter asks Murray and Cantwell to review Lummi’s request and urge the Corps to deny the permits if it finds the potential impacts to the tribe’s fishing rights can’t be mitigated.

“Based on the recent Gateway Pacific Terminal Vessel Traffic and Risk Assessment Study, the Lummi Nation found that the proposed project will result in substantial impairment of their usual and accustomed fishing areas; and that these impacts cannot be mitigated.

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This is truly a statewide and regional issue. Increased barge traffic in the Salish Sea will bring increased risk of water pollution to critical habitat for threatened salmon species. Significant increases in rail traffic - including the projected potential for 18 mile-and-a-half-long coal trains a day bifurcating Bellingham’s newly developing Waterfront District and other severely affecting communities along the rail route - will bring traffic and freight delays, decreased property values and potential health impacts to our most vulnerable communities.”

The City of Bellingham has come together with 138 state, tribal, and local elected officials from four states and British Columbia to raise awareness of the safety risks of oil and coal trains and their economic, cultural, environmental, and health impacts. Please urge the USACE to deny the permits under its jurisdiction for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal if it finds that the impacts from the project to usual and accustomed treaty fishing rights cannot be mitigated.”

In response to the council’s letter, the Northwest Jobs Alliance also put pen to paper. The Alliance was formed to support the terminal, and its mission is to “Promote the growth of family-wage jobs in the context of sound environmental practice.”

Alliance co-chairs Brad Owens and John Huntley sent an email Thursday, Jan. 29, to announce their concerns about the council’s stance.

Their letter starts by calling into question the council’s understanding of the nature of the project and the amount of barge traffic it might involve and goes on to reference an argument about the impact on fishing areas that was previously made in a statement by SSA Marine.

“First, we feel that there must be some misunderstanding about the nature of this project, because your letter reflects a significant misconception in its discussion of barge traffic. We have reconfirmed with the project proponent, SSA Marine, that barge traffic, which presents its own issues with respect to marine transportation, is not anticipated to be of any significance at the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) facility. The facility is being designed principally for exporting US products via bulk freighters, not barges.

It is our understanding that of the approximately 1.9 million acres of “usual and accustomed” (U&A) fishing grounds of the Lummi (and presumably other treaty tribes), the project’s infrastructure would impact 46 acres of tidelands (which are owned by SSA and/or the state), or 1/2000 of one percent of the U&A area. There are many measures that can be taken to mitigate or prevent the impacts of an industrial project and the associated vessel traffic (much of which will likely transit the state’s and adjacent waterways with or without GPT), and the project proponent undoubtedly will seek to prove their effectiveness through the NEPA/SEPA EIS processes now underway. Only at the conclusion of that lengthy process can informed and reasonable judgments be made.”

When SSA Marine referenced the 46 acres of tidelands a few weeks ago, Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew said that calculation does not include the disruption caused by ships.

“They can’t just take into account just where the pier would be located,” Ballew told The Bellingham Herald earlier this month. “The vessel traffic associated with that needs to be taken into account.”

The vessel study said the traffic added by the operation of Gateway Pacific Terminal would increase by 73 percent the disruption of Lummi fishing by vessels.

Alliance’s letter goes on to finger wag at the Council, Linville and the tribe.

“Although your letter does not necessarily suggest it, there is no legitimate or equitable principle that could justify crashing such an extensive regulatory process in the middle of fact discovery, as we are sure you would agree. The precedent of doing such a thing, if taken to its logical ends, could lead to the precipitous disruption of virtually any future maritime-related projects along major portions of the state’s shorelines and could even impact projects that tribes and municipalities, themselves, have in mind.

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Bellingham does not exist as an economic island. Headcounts of Cherry Point employees have shown 30-40% of them to be living in Bellingham, with many more of those wage-earners filling the cash registers of Bellingham businesses and service providers. Bellingham would be a bleak place without them, and the contributions of these hardworking folks should not be taken for granted.

The recent Bellingham-based movement to “de-industrialize” the economy and to oppose anything having to do with industry at Cherry Point is a disrespectful and insensitive attack on working families who are struggling to make ends meet and join (or remain in) the middle class. We already have a challenged and shrinking middle class. Any view of an economy without basic industry and the associated family wage jobs is one that is impractical; as well, it is disregardful of the needs of most citizens, the vast majority of whom must work for a living and for whom acquiring steady, industry-based employment is a family game-changer.”

Read the NW Jobs Alliance letter in full here. Read Bellingham’s letter in full here.

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